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Religious Schools Not Exempt from NJ Civil Rights Laws

A state appellate court on May 17 rejected a religious school's contention that New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD) could not be invoked by lay teachers at religious institutions without violating the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the federal and state Constitutions. The ACLU-NJ and the Rutgers Women's Rights Litigation Clinic, represented by Professor Nadine Taub, had joined the case as amici on behalf of Eileen Gallo, who taught history for eight years at Don Bosco High School before being fired in 1991. She filed suit that same year, alleging a systematic plan to hire, promote, and favor male over female teachers.

The school attributed Gallo's dismissal to declining enrollment, but failed to convince the jury that budgetary constraints were the reason in the face of Gallo's evidence that good female teachers were let go, while male teachers were rehired despite serious infractions. Gallo herself was replaced by a male teacher with only two years experience who lacked certification.

The defendants sought to overturn the jury verdict by invoking the “ministerial function” test, which, quite properly, precludes judicial resolution of disputes between a church and its religious ministers. The doctrine recognizes that adjudication of such disputes would impermissibly interfere in the free exercise rights of church members and officials. Although Gallo did teach history, and not religion, defendants argued that all lay parochial school teachers should be considered “ministerial” employees because religion pervasively influences the education at such schools.

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