WASHINGTON — A state court in Massachusetts has ruled that a Catholic preparatory school violated the state's antidiscrimination law when it rescinded a job offer to a man because he was married to another man.
Matthew Barrett had accepted a job as Food Service Director at the Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic girls school. On his employment forms, he listed his husband as his emergency contact — a move that led the school to rescind the job offer.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Associate Justice Douglas Wilkins ruled that Fontbonne discriminated against Barrett based on sexual orientation and rejected the school's arguments as to why it should be exempted from the state law or otherwise not subject to its employment discrimination ban.
Barrett's lawyers from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders praised the judge's ruling as "the first of its kind in the country."
Wilkins's first decision in the case was that Barrett was, in fact, discriminated against:
Despite that, the school argued it was exempted from the law and that the state could not, under the U.S. Constitution, enforce the law because it would violate the school's right of expressive association and free exercise of religion — all of which the court ultimately rejected.
The statutory exemption for education organizations "operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization" includes exemption for "any action with respect to matters of employment" — language that the court acknowledges "appears to confer upon Fontbonne the exemption it claims in this case."
However, the court pointed to later language in the statute limiting the "employer" exemption only to those schools that "limit membership, enrollment, admission, or participation to members of that religion." The school, the court found, does no such thing, so the exemption does not apply.
As to the constitutional claim, the school argued that its expressive association rights would be infringed if forced to hire Barrett. The court, however, found that the school failed to meet two of the three standards set by the Supreme Court for such claims in its 2000 decision regarding the Boy Scouts. Although the academy does engage in "at least some form of expression," meeting the first standard, the court found that there is "minimal risk" that Barrett's hire would "significantly and seriously burden [Fontbonne's] expression."
Explaining that, Wilkins wrote:
Additionally, the court found that Massachusetts "has a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination" — an interest "rarely stronger than in the employment context" — such that any burden on associational rights is outweighed by that interest.
Finally, the court found that Fontbonne's free exercise claim — based on the "ministerial exception" — also failed. Looking at a 2012 Supreme Court case addressing the exception, the court found that Barrett "has no duties as an administrator or teacher of religious matters" and that the job is not subject to the exception. As Wilkins explained:
Responding to the ruling, Barrett's lawyer, Bennett Klein from GLAD, told reporters on a call Thursday morning, "Since the advent of marriage equality, we have seen efforts by religiously affiliated organizations to expand the grounds for exemptions from the obligation of nondiscrimination. The court's ruling ... affirms that a religious employer has no greater constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation than it does to discriminate on the basis of a person's race or sex."
A message seeking comment from Fontbonne Academy was left with the school.
Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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