Hospital Avoids Racial Discrimination Claim With Religious Exception

By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on March 08, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

People have a general right to work in a place that's free of discrimination, whether it's based on race, religion, gender, age, or disability. In the event that you feel you have become the victim of employment discrimination, you can usually file a claim with the government and/or file a civil lawsuit.

However, that doesn't mean that you'll always have a valid claim against your employer. Just ask Mark Penn, whose lawsuit against New York Methodist Hospital for religious and racial discrimination was recently dismissed by the Second Circuit.

The Alleged Discrimination

Mark Penn had worked for the hospital's Department of Pastoral Care as duty chaplain between 2004 and 2011. Penn claimed that he was never promoted to a full-time staff chaplain position because of his race and his religion.

More specifically, Penn says that a non-Methodist Protestant and a Jewish rabbi were promoted over him. Peter Poulos, who was the program director and also named in the lawsuit, stated that there were other factors for Penn's lack of promotion and denied discriminating against him.

According to Poulos, one reason Penn wasn't promoted was because he "ended services with hymns that excluded certain groups of Christians and insisted upon 'full coverage,' ignoring time constraints."

Why Was the Lawsuit Dismissed?

The court found that the hospital was exempt for religious and racial discrimination claims because of the "ministerial exception." This exception came from a Supreme Court holding that "ministers cannot bring employment discrimination claims against the religious organizations that employ them."

Penn made the argument that the hospital had become a secular institution, but the court found that the division that employed him was still a religious organization. To that point the majority opinion states: "While [the hospital] may have shed significant aspects of its religious identity by amending its Certificate of Incorporation, the hospital's Department of Pastoral Care has retained a critical aspect of that religious identity in order to provide religious services to its patients."

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