The Illinois Supreme Court issued one opinion on Thursday, February 4. In Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, the Supreme Court held that a fired Catholic principal can’t sue the school for her termination because the diocese’s actions are protected by constitutional religious freedom guarantees.

Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet

By Michael T. Reagan

The court held here that the principal of a Catholic grade school who alleges that she was discharged for reporting threatening conduct of a parent to the police was barred from bringing claims for retaliatory discharge and a violation of the Whistleblower Act. The opinion for the court by Chief Justice Burke affirms the appellate court, which had in turn affirmed the circuit court’s order of dismissal pursuant to a combined motion to dismiss. Justice Carter, who was on the panel in the Third District, did not participate.

This opinion is tightly reasoned, proceeding through the layers of the issues in careful fashion. Neither the full flavor of the facts nor every progression of the reasoning will be treated here. In broad summary, plaintiff was a long-time educator who had an impressive record as principal of the school. A problem developed with a parent, who resided in Massachusetts, complaining that his daughter, a student at the school, was being bullied. Plaintiff alleges that she reported the situation and perceived threats presented by the parent to the police on several occasions, with the approval of the pastor of the affiliated church. After a newspaper story headlined “Man vowed to ‘terrorize’ Naperville school: authorities” was published, followed by a meeting of the school’s parents, the defendant Diocese terminated plaintiff.

The Diocese raised two arguments in its motion to dismiss: That a common law claim of retaliatory discharge is available only to at-will employees, and that first amendment considerations, the “ministerial exception,” protect a religious institution’s ability to select individuals appointed to speak for the church.

The court first took up all nonconstitutional arguments, as it must. The court held that because plaintiff was a contractual employee, she could not state a claim for retaliatory discharge. The court also took up a new argument made by defendant on appeal, that the Whistleblower Act claim did not fall within that act because plaintiff had not reported illegal activities of her employer, as opposed to the activities of the parent. In rejecting that argument, the court relied on the words of the Act, which refers to “a” violation of law, rather than being limited to the employer’s violation of law.

The court then took up “two separate, albeit intertwined, judicially created doctrines,” the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial exception, both of which are rooted in the first amendment. If either applied, the dismissal of the Whistleblower Act claim would be affirmed. Generally, ecclesiastical abstention provides that civil courts may not determine the correctness of some decisions made by religious organizations. It is a qualified, not absolute, limitation. The ministerial exception, in the words of another state supreme court, “is best understood as a narrow, more focused subsidiary of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which allows religious organizations to select and control their ministers without judicial review.

The Supreme Court of the United States has been active in this area. In 2020, that court stated that “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.” Our court then found that this whistleblower claim was not exempt from application of the ministerial exception. Lastly, the court took up the question of whether this plaintiff principal is to be regarded as a “minister” for these purposes. After examining the evidence submitted (on this motion to dismiss), the court concluded that “although her formal title (“lay principal”) does not necessarily indicate a religious role, it is apparent from the record that plaintiff’s job duties entailed numerous religious functions in furtherance of the school’s Catholic mission.” The dismissal of all claims stands.

There is a generalized point of procedure in which the court addressed an issue which frequently arises. In allowing the defendant to argue something not argued below, the court said “It is well established that ‘the appellee may urge any point in support of the judgment on appeal, even though not directly ruled on by the trial court, so long as the factual basis for such point was before the trial court.'”