5th Circuit: Music director’s ADEA and ADA claims barred by ministerial exception doctrine

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, (5th Cir., Oct. 24, 2012), the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Americans With Disabilities Act brought against the Diocese of Austin by a former Music Director at a Catholic church. Plaintiff, Phillip Cannata, worked only evenings and weekends. He  oversaw the Music Department’s budget, managed  the  sound  systems and maintained equipment and the music areas.  He also rehearsed with members of the choir and cantors and accompanied them on the piano during services while running the soundboard. Concluding that the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision at least modifies prior 5th Circuit precedent, the court held that Cannata was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception doctrine:

“the church has the right to determine who will  participate  in  its  religious  ceremonies. Even  assuming  Cannata  was “merely” an accompanist, Appellees have established the importance of music to the celebration of Mass and Cannata’s role in the service.  Because Cannata performed an important function during the service, there is no genuine dispute that he played a role in furthering the mission of the church and conveying its message to  its  congregants.”