Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic Sch., 2023 WL 3142316 (Cal. Ct. App. 2023)
Frances Atkins was a long-term employee of St. Cecilia Catholic School, and in her final year with the school, she worked part-time as an art teacher and office administrator. Following the termination of her employment, Atkins sued the school for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court granted summary judgment to the school based on the ministerial exception, which precludes certain employment claims to be brought against a religious institution by its “ministers.” The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that although the school did not waive the ministerial exception defense by failing to assert it as an affirmative defense, there were triable issues of fact as to whether the ministerial exception applied to Atkins’ position because she did not teach religion to the students nor did she lead the students in any religious activities or services or ever attend such services herself. Despite the fact that Atkins prayed with the students in her art class and promoted the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ six tasks of catechesis by encouraging “Christ-like” behavior, there were triable issues of fact as to whether educating students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of her job responsibilities, which included the dual roles of teaching and acting as a school administrator.