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Ave Maria law school claims professors are ministers, denying recourse to civil courts

In Safranek v. Monaghan, three law professors have sued the Ave Maria law school established by pizza-magnate Tom Monaghan, claiming they were wrongfully discharged.  Last month, the Law School threw a new defense into the two-year old lawsuit:  the professors are "ministers" and therefore may be discharged by church authorities without recourse to civil law.  The School alleges that allowing the teachers civil rights would be an infringement on the Church's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.  The latter right as been recognized in employment and discrimination claims involving ordained ministers, and occasionally, parochial school teachers.

The attorney for the professors told that she was more-or-less flabbergasted by the defense, given that Monaghan had sought ABA approval of the school and testified that it was intended to be "entirely independent of Church governance."  The Dean of the law school was quoted as having publicly stated that Ave Maria is "not a seminary.  We're a law school...[W]e never lose sight of the fact that our primary responsibility is to train people to be good lawyers."  The Dean is currently on medical leave [we won't take the cheap shot and suggest that this defense has made him sick] and was unavailable to comment on the School's revised wrongful termination defense.  The School's retained lawyers have also declined comment. 

Perhaps the underlying discharge case has not been going well for the school and it has been forced to "pull out all the stops."  Or, perhaps the school intends to quit masquerading as a law school and acknowledge that it is a law-focused seminary. In either event, it would seem that the school's administration needs to decide just what they want the school to be, and quit trying to "have their cake and eat it, too." 

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