A Massachusetts court ruling against a Catholic school may have set a dangerous precedent that interferes with religious schools’ ability to hire staff consistent with their mission, critics said.

“This court decision makes it impossible for faith-based institutions to survive,” Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told CNA.

Beckwith was responding to a court ruling that Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Milton, Mass., violated state anti-discrimination laws. The ruling suggested that religious freedom exemptions do not apply to the school because it accepts non-Catholic students.

“If this decision stands, it will either force faith-based schools to close their doors to anyone who is not of the same religion or they will have to give up their beliefs and hire without any regard to faith which will ultimately cease to make them faith-based institutions,” Beckwith said.

In June 2013, Matthew Barrett was hired as a food services director at Fontbonne Academy. But the school rescinded the job offer a few days later after discovering that Barrett was in a civil same-sex marriage.

Fontbonne Academy’s CEO, Mary Ellen Barnes, told Barrett that he could not be hired because his lifestyle is inconsistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage. She explained that every employee is expected to be a minister of the school’s Catholic mission.

The school is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston. The college preparatory high school says it offers students of all faith an “education that opens them to the Catholic heritage of the search for God and the expression of faith through concern for the dear neighbor.”

Shortly after Barrett’s job offer was rescinded, he sued Fontbonne Academy. He claimed that the school discriminated against him because of his gender and his sexual orientation.  

In December 2015, the Norfolk Superior County Court ruled in favor of Barrett. The court also claimed that the school could not deny Barret the job since the duties of a food services director do not include promoting the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Beckwith said that all positions within a religious school represent the school’s identity, not just those relating to teaching the faith.

“Religious schools should be able to decide who they hire. This is part of their constitutional right of free exercise of religion and association protected by the First Amendment,” Beckwith told CNA.  

“The government should not be able to decide if a job has anything to do with religion,” he said. “Catholics and Protestants acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Savior who fed the masses with bread and fish and washed the feet of his disciples.”

“Christ literally and spiritually fed his followers. He demonstrates that every single job is infused with a faith element and the person doing the job is a witness to that faith,” Beckwith added.

Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Gregory S. Baylor said it is dangerous to have the government determine the hiring practices of religious schools.

“You are on a slippery slope if you allow the government to determine which jobs it deems ‘religious’,” Baylor told CNA. “The government should not be allowed to interfere with a religious school’s hiring practices and what it believes is important to remain true to its mission and identity.”

“Religious schools should be able to have representatives that behave in a manner that is consistent with their beliefs so that there is no misunderstanding where the school stands on controversial issues,” he said.

The court also ruled that Fontbonne Academy did not qualify for a religious exemption to the state’s anti-discrimination laws because it does not restrict membership and enrollment to only one religion.

“Welcoming students of all faiths, its student body has included non-Catholics, including Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians. It follows that Fontbonne, as employer has no statutory exemption from the provisions that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” the judgement states.

Beckwith argued that the judge misinterpreted the statute for religious exemptions.

“The judge created a very narrow interpretation for religious exemptions that is outside of the intent of the legislature,” Beckwith said. “According to the ruling, if Fontbonne Academy allows non-Catholic students, then that means they lose their religious freedom protections. This is wrong.”

“Religious freedom allows schools to set limits on what the behavioral standards are for its academic programs and faculty. But what this ruling says is that they don’t get to do that unless they only have Catholic membership and enrollment,” he said.

“This logic goes against the academic spirit of debate and diversity. Fontbonne allows for non-Catholic participation in its school precisely because of its desire for authentic debate and diversity,” Beckwith said.

Fontbonne Academy currently has more than 320 students enrolled who come from over 40 communities around the greater Boston. There are more than 30 international students at the school.

The school only requires its administrative and theology faculty to be Catholic.

Martin Scanlan, associate professor at Boston College, said that religious institutions have a right to preserve their identity, especially since they do not impose their beliefs on others of different faiths.  

“Catholics schools strike a positive balance between their Catholic identity and respecting the fact that not everyone enrolled or participating is Catholic,” he told CNA. “In fact, religious institutions live their faith more fully when they are allowed to serve a population that includes people with different religious views.”

Baylor said that religious schools can be proactive in preserving their identity by clearly establishing their beliefs and hiring practices to avoid legal disputes.

“One of the most important things that religious schools can do is to clearly state in writing what their beliefs, policies and practices are and then consistently apply those policies. They also need to clearly explain in advance where they draw the line — if any — on their hiring practices and who can and cannot be allowed to perform a specific job,” Baylor said.

“In this way, many disputes can be avoided. If they are not, these schools should know they have legal recourse,” he said. Photo credit: Stephen Kiers via www.shutterstock.com