Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York

Becket Role:


Decision Date:
August 16, 2017
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Case Snapshot

When lawyers and anti-religious academics attempted to insert government in selecting religious leaders at a religious school in upstate New York, Becket pushed back, winning a major victory for the right of church schools to choose their own ministers.


In July 2017, the court protected the right of St. Anthony School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to choose their own leaders.

Case Summary

A school dedicated to teaching Catholic values

For over 200 years, Catholic schools in New York have provided top-notch elementary schools for ethnically and economically diverse students. And for over 60 years, St. Anthony’s Parish has run a school that is an integral part of that community of schools. Like other Catholic schools, St. Anthony’s is dedicated to create a Christ-centered, academically excellent and welcoming communities by teaching students to pursue knowledge in keeping with their Catholic faith. Every day at St. Anthony’s is infused with Catholic values.

Choosing the leaders of its faith

We all know schools don’t run themselves. For St. Anthony’s to be true to its Catholic teachings, it must have leaders who will respect and protect its Catholic identity. At St. Anthony’s, this all starts with the principal. The principal guides the religious mission of the school, ensuring that the school teaches its faith to its students on a daily basis. The principal exercises her leadership in many ways, including by offering daily prayer, attending the School’s monthly mass and annual feasts, encouraging students and faculty to participate in religious observances, and ensuring that the school curriculum embraces Catholic tradition.

The Supreme Court upholds the ministerial exception 

For decades, courts have ruled that religious schools can require their teachers to share their faith. In fact, in 2012 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor that a 4th grade teacher at a Lutheran religious school is a minister for their faith, and a school has a right to select their ministers without permission from a government bureaucrat.

That right clearly applies to St. Anthony’s. As a Catholic school, St. Anthony’s has the right to choose its religious leaders free from government interference. But a former principal of the school, Joan Fratello, recently challenged that right after St. Anthony’s declined to renew her contract because of insubordination. She thinks that allowing St. Anthony’s to select its own leaders will aid “malevolent organizations and potential terrorists” and contribute to the “destruction of our future” as a country. Sadly, she’s supported by a group of trial lawyers who make money off of litigation and by an anti-religious academic who has long opposed what every justice on the Supreme Court supported in 2012.

Ms. Fratello not only personally provided religious prayer, guidance, and instruction, she also supervised all the teachers with the same duties. Under the law, that means she was a minister. A religious leader who supervises a religious school’s ministries is herself a minister.

Becket stepped in to represent St. Anthony’s. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument in the case in March 2017. In July 2017, the court protected the right of St. Anthony School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to choose their own leaders.

In August 2017, Fratello’s lawyer filed a frivolous request for the full Second Circuit to reverse its unanimous ruling, which he compared to the infamous Dred Scott decision while comparing the church to “slave owners.” Becket opposed his attempt to prolong the lawsuit and urged the court to put an end to his abusive attacks on the church and the court. The Court denied Fratello’s petition shortly after Becket filed its opposition.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
March 29, 2016
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York
Practice Area(s):