Secular hospital claims ministerial exception

Marlon Penn – a hospital chaplain – claimed his employer New York Methodist Hospital discriminated against him on the basis of his race and religion, and retaliated against him after he filed charges with the EEOC. Even though the hospital no longer has any ties to the Methodist Church, the 2nd Circuit concluded that the 1st amendment's "ministerial exception" prevented Penn from pursuing a Title VII claim. Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital (2nd Cir 03/09/2018) [PDF].

There's no question that Penn was a minister. He conducted religious services and helped with prayer and rituals. The issue in the case was whether the hospital was a "religious institution" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

As the court put it, the hospital, "because of its history and continuing purpose, through its Department of Pastoral Care, is a “'religious group.'”

Historically, the hospital was connected to the United Methodist Church, but not any more, and now holds itself out as a secular facility. However, Penn worked in the hospital's Department of Pastoral Care which has the mission of providing an “ecumenical program of pastoral care” to patients and to “see that the needs of the whole person—mind and spirit as well as body—are met.”

The 2nd Circuit's logic is that the hospital once upon a time was a religious institution, the Department of Pastoral Care retained that character even though the hospital as a whole had gone secular, so the hospital "is a 'religious group,' at least with respect to its Department of Pastoral Care."

What about other secular hospitals? In footnote 5, the court says:

"Because this Court’s ruling is premised on the NYMH having been a religiously‐ affiliated entity and having retained a sufficient portion of its identity in the specific operation of the Department of Pastoral Care, this Court does not and need not reach the issue of whether hospitals, secular in their origins and with chaplaincies, also could properly invoke the ministerial exception."

I really don't see why the hospital's historical religious character (lost since the 1970s) has any bearing on whether it is a religious institution today.

The dissent says the majority "has set the bar far too low for employers to claim religious‐ based immunity from federal anti‐discrimination law." The dissent faulted the majority for focusing on the Department of Pastoral Care rather than the hospital as a whole.

For other discussions of this case:

Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital, No. 16-474 (2d Cir., Mar. 7, 2018); EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018)

Hospital once linked to church and still giving pastoral care may invoke ministerial exception