Paul L. Caron

Friday, July 10, 2009

Are Catholic Law Profs "Ministers"?

National Law Journal: Seeking to Avoid Termination Suit, Catholic Law School Claims Professors Are Ministers, by Tresa Baldas:

Are Catholic law school professors really ministers?

A Michigan trial judge will decide that next week in a controversial employment dispute involving Ave Maria School of Law, which is trying to declare law professors as ministers to avoid a wrongful termination suit from proceeding.

In the latest twist to the two-year-old suit filed in state court by a three former professors, Tom Monaghan, the school's founder and financier, filed a motion last month claiming that the law professors are "ministerial." Therefore, he argues, because the school is a religious institution, the administration over these minister-professors is exempt from civil trial court under the "Establishment and Free Exercise of religious clauses of the First Amendment."

Monaghan also claims that the institution is eligible for "ecclesiastical abstention," requiring courts to "abstain from inquiring into, or interfering with, governance of the religious institution."

 "We got a curveball thrown into the case, and the law school is shooting itself in the foot," said Deborah Gordon of the Law Offices of Deborah Gordon in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who is representing the law professors. Gordon is aghast at the theory that Catholic law school professors are ministers. "Are you people kidding or what," Gordon said, baffled by Monoghan's theory. Gordon thinks this argument could draw the ire of the ABA.

Of course, if Catholic Law Profs are indeed ministers, this would open the door to some very lucrative tax advantages, including most importantly the housing allowance permitted by ยง107.  See Warren v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. No. 23 (2000).

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Well, maybe not ministers, but the CUA Law Profs are divinely inspired.

Posted by: gcwright | Jul 10, 2009 11:14:25 AM

Paul, Monaghan's argument is terrible law. It's even worse as a matter of Catholic dogma.

Posted by: Jim Chen | Jul 10, 2009 7:36:38 PM

From its infancy, Ave Maria has always had a stellar record of compliance with ABA accreditation criteria and received the mandatory provisional ABA accreditation and full ABA accreditation at the earliest possible stages.

The ABA recently scrutinized complaints alleged against Ave Maria by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit you discuss - and dismissed them all as meritless.

The ABA also recently scrutinized Ave Maria as part of its approval of the school's request for a major change to its program (the move to Florida), finding that the school was in full compliance with all ABA standards (despite the negative spin that those hostile to the administration consistently issue via anonymous and wholly unaccountable blog websites that ignore all facts and developments that favor the administration).

Too, Florida's Department of Education scrutinized the school as part of its approval of the school's license to operate the school in Florida, and the Federal Department of Education also scrutinized the school as part of its approval of the school's request to continue participating in Federal programs at its new location.

There is no threat to Ave Maria's accreditation when the lawyers of a defendant, here Mr. Monaghan who has been sued as an individual, vigorously assert a lawful defense.

Meanwhile, Miss Gordon's very complaint is evidence that she and her clients are at least as interested in doing everything possible to embarass Mr. Monaghan - regardless of how absurd the tactics - as in prevailing under the law in court.

For Miss Gordon its a twofer - she sees this as a chance to ridicule and malign a conservative giant and a conservative institution, whose ideologies she opposes with every inch of her being, all with the possibility that she will obtain a large payoff from their conservative coffers.

Posted by: Willie | Jul 11, 2009 6:41:35 AM

The sort of argument that the school is making was shot down by the US Supreme Court in Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., 477 U.S. 619 (1986).

Posted by: Tangurena | Jul 12, 2009 10:14:18 AM