911 A.2d 319 (Conn.App. 2006), 27108, Rweyemamu v. Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities

Docket Nº27108.
Citation911 A.2d 319, 98 Conn.App. 646
Opinion JudgePETERS, J.
AttorneyHarold H. Burbank II, for the appellant (plaintiff)., Charles Krich, principal attorney, for the appellee (named defendant)., Meredith G. Diette, for the appellee (defendant Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich)., Flynn, C.J., and Gruendel and Peters, Js. Harold H. Burbank II, for the appellant (pl...
Judge PanelFlynn, C.J., and Gruendel and Peters, Js. In this opinion the other Judges concurred.
Case DateDecember 12, 2006
CourtAppellate Court of Connecticut

Page 319

911 A.2d 319 (Conn.App. 2006)

98 Conn.App. 646




No. 27108.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

December 12, 2006

Argued September 21, 2006.

Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Britain, Hon. Howard T. Owens, Jr., judge trial referee.

Page 320

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 321

Harold H. Burbank II, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Charles Krich, principal attorney, for the appellee (named defendant).

Meredith G. Diette, for the appellee (defendant Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich).

Flynn, C.J., and Gruendel and Peters, Js.


[98 Conn.App. 648] The first amendment to the United States constitution protects religious institutions from governmental interference with their free exercise of religion. 1 Accordingly,

Page 322

many courts have recognized a ministerial exception to judicial authority to adjudicate employment disputes between religious institutions and their religious leaders. In this case, the commission on human rights and opportunities (commission) invoked the ministerial exception to conclude that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear allegations of employment discrimination brought by a Catholic priest against his diocese. We must decide whether the trial court properly dismissed the priest’s appeal from the dismissal of his administrative complaint. The priest argues that for prudential reasons buttressed by a recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, we should decline to recognize a ministerial exception to the jurisdiction of the commission. We disagree and affirm the judgment of the trial court.

On April 25, 2005, the plaintiff, Father Justinian Rweyemamu, a Roman Catholic priest, filed a revised administrative appeal to the trial court to challenge the validity of a decision by the defendant commission to dismiss his complaint of discriminatory employment practices on jurisdictional grounds. His administrative complaint [98 Conn.App. 649] alleged that the defendant, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich (diocese), had engaged in discriminatory employment practices in violation of General Statutes § 46a-60. 2 The trial court concluded that neither state agencies nor state courts have subject matter jurisdiction to review purely ecclesiastical disputes. Accordingly, it dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal.

In his appeal to this court, the plaintiff’s principal claim is that the defendant commission and the trial court improperly invoked a ministerial exception to administrative jurisdiction because Connecticut law has never recognized such an exception. In the alternative, he claims that the jurisprudential underpinnings of the ministerial exception have been dispositively demonstrated to be flawed in a binding decision of the Second Circuit, Hankins v. Lyght, 441 F.3d 96 (2d Cir. 2006). We are not persuaded.


We begin our analysis of the plaintiff’s principal claim that the commission should have exercised jurisdiction by setting forth our standard of review. ‘‘Jurisdiction of the subject-matter is the power [of the court] to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong.... A court has subject matter jurisdiction if it has the authority to adjudicate a particular type of legal controversy.... It is a familiar principle that a court which exercises a limited [98 Conn.App. 650] and statutory jurisdiction is without jurisdiction to act unless it does so under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly prescribed by the enabling legislation....

‘‘This concept, however, is not limited to courts. Administrative agencies

Page 323

[such as the commission] are tribunals of limited jurisdiction and their jurisdiction is dependent entirely upon the validity of the statutes vesting them with power and they cannot confer jurisdiction upon themselves.... We have recognized that [i]t is clear that an administrative body must act strictly within its statutory authority, within constitutional limitations and in a lawful manner.... It cannot modify, abridge or otherwise change the statutory provisions, under which it acquires authority unless the statutes expressly grant it that power.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Figueroa v. C & S Ball Bearing, 237 Conn. 1, 4, 675 A.2d 845 (1996). ‘‘We . . . note that because [a] determination regarding [an agency’s] subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, our review is plenary.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Salmon v. Dept. of Public Health & Addiction Services, 58 Conn.App. 642, 649, 754 A.2d 828 (2000), rev’d on other grounds, 259 Conn. 288, 788 A.2d 1199 (2002).

Our starting point for determining whether the commission properly relied on the ministerial exception to decline to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s complaint is the affidavit that the plaintiff filed to initiate these proceedings. The plaintiff alleged that he was a ‘‘black African ordained Catholic priest from Tanzania, East Africa who [had] been employed by [the diocese] as a priest for over ten years in the position of parochial vicar; the last five of which [had been] at St. Bernard’s Church, Rockville, Connecticut.’’ He further alleged that he had been refused a promotion to the position of administrator for St. Bernard’s parish and that a less-qualified, white deacon [98 Conn.App. 651] had been appointed in his place.

The plaintiff also alleged that the diocese had harassed him about his role in working for a nondenominational, nonprofit organization called Buguruka Orphan and Community Economic Development, Inc. (organization). The plaintiff claimed that the diocese ‘‘has demanded, and continues to demand to date, through its top administrator, Bishop Michael Cote, to investigate [the organization] by interviewing me about [the organization] in Bishop Cote’s office, under alleged but canonically incorrect church authority ....’’ (Emphasis in original.)

The plaintiff further alleged that the diocese had engaged in race, ethnicity, national origin and alienage based discrimination when it failed to promote him on April 7, 2004, and August 27, 2004. Additional alleged instances of discrimination, beginning on March 30, 2004, included poor evaluations, retaliation and harassment.

The commission’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was based on its recognition that ‘‘the courts and the commission recognize a ‘ministerial exception’ with respect to individuals employed by religious institutions in a ‘clergy’ or ‘ministerial’ capacity. The commission and the courts have determined that such are the ‘lifeblood’ of the church, and any government [interference] between a church and its ministers would violate the first amendment to the constitution."

The trial court upheld the commission’s application of the ministerial exception as reflected in federal antidiscrimination statutes and case law. The court decided that the ministerial exception grants ‘‘religious institutions . . . the authority to manage their internal affairs, select their leaders without interference and [98 Conn.App. 652] resolve their own disputes.’’ The court concluded that ‘‘[t]he case Before [it] involve[d] the basic and fundamental question of who will preach from the altar and who will occupy the rectory at St. Bernard’s. The very nature of the question in and of itself

Page 324

makes it clear that this court lacks jurisdiction. Whether it comes from the priest, rabbi or clergyman or from an administrative agency such as the [commission], the court is without jurisdiction to interfere.’’

The issue of whether the ministerial exception applies to Connecticut’s employment discrimination laws is one of first impression for our appellate courts. Like the federal government in its enactment of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et. seq., Connecticut prohibits discrimination in employment. General Statutes § 46a-60. When interpreting § 46a-60, our Supreme Court has ‘‘often looked to federal employment discrimination law for enforcing our own [antidiscrimination] statute.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Thames Talent, Ltd. v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities, 265 Conn. 127, 139, 827 A.2d 659 (2003).

As the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has observed, ‘‘[t]he ministerial exception is judicial shorthand for two conclusions: the first is that the imposition of secular standards on a church’s employment of its ministers will burden the free exercise of religion; the second, that the state’s interest in eliminating employment discrimination is outweighed by a church’s constitutional right of autonomy in its own domain.’’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3d 455, 467 (D.C. Cir. 1996). We are mindful that the protections afforded by the first amendment apply to state as well as federal governmental actions. Cant-well v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303, 60 S.Ct. 900, 84 L.Ed. 1213 (1940) (‘‘Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent [98 Conn.App. 653] as Congress to enact . . . laws [that violate the first amendment’s religion clauses] ").

The ministerial exception’s role in protecting important constitutional rights was first articulated in McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 896, 93 S.Ct. 132, 34 L.Ed.2d 153 (1972). In that case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to decide a gender discrimination claim under Title VII. Id. The reason for the...

To continue reading

Request your trial