Despite trial and appellate court defeats, Rehfield urged the Illinois Supreme Court to hold that the ministerial exception was inapplicable to her retaliatory discharge claims, arguing that the exception had not been, and should not be applied “to her whistleblower claim because [it] involve[d] public policies and societal interests beyond the protection of an individual’s right to be free from employment discrimination.” Rehfield also denied that she was a ‘minister’ subject to the exception, claiming that her duties were primarily secular. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, like the circuit and intermediate appellate courts before it, rejected these contentions.
While the Rehfield court acknowledged that “[t]he United States Supreme Court has not addressed application of the ministerial exception to a whistleblower claim,” making the question one of “first impression in this State,” it rejected Rehfield’s distinction between discrimination and retaliatory discharge claims, finding that the ministerial exception applies to retaliatory discharge claims. Among other authority, the Rehfield court considered a Ninth Circuit federal decision holding that the ministerial exception applies to state law retaliatory discharge claims was persuasive authority that the Diocese appropriately invoked the exception to defeat Rehfield’s case.
The former principal was a ‘minister’ subject to the ministerial exception
Rehfield next argued that even if the exception applied, she was not a ‘minister’ under the exception because her employment contract referred to her as a “lay principal,” not a minister. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, however, the Rehfield court observed that “what matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” not the employee’s title.
Rehfield, the Illinois Supreme Court reasoned, was indeed a “minister” under the exception, since Diocese “principals are required to provide an identifiably Catholic atmosphere in the school, visit classrooms and supervise teachers in their provision of a Catholic education, establish student-instructional programs that include regular religious education, and develop and participate in religious programming for staff.”
The former principal’s fixed-term contract barred her retaliatory discharge claim
The Rehfield court also held that Rehfield’s fixed-term employment contract barred her retaliatory discharge claim, recognizing precedent holding that contracted employees may not press claims for retaliatory nonrenewal of employment contracts for a fixed term. Notably, Rehfield made a one-year employment contract with the Diocese before it relieved her of her duties, though the Diocese continued to pay her through the term of the contract, even after it relieved her of all responsibilities. Thus, Rehfield was not an “at-will” employee, and could not bring a retaliatory discharge claim; from the inception of her contract, its termination was a mutually recognized reality.
The Illinois Supreme Court’s Rehfield decision brings some clarity to Illinois’ religious employers, extending the ministerial exception to retaliatory discharge claims, and recognizing that ‘ministers’ under the exception may well include lay people who are entrusted with religious leadership and educational duties. For nonreligious employers, Rehfield teaches that fixed-term employment contracts may also extinguish contracted employees’ retaliatory discharge claims.