Ave Maria Law School Invokes Status as Religious Institution and “Ecclesiastical Abstention” to Dismiss Law Professors’ Lawsuit

ave_mariaThe Ave Maria Law School in Naples, Florida has long been controversial. Dedicated to Catholic education and values, the school is the subject of a lawsuit by professors who are challenging the move from Michigan to Florida as well as management policies. The law school is now claiming in the lawsuit that all law professors are “ministerial employees” and that the school is entitled to “ecclesiastical abstention.”

The law school is challenging the the court’s subject matter jurisdiction over the matter by insisting that the law school is basically like a church and that the court cannot inquire into its “underlying motivation for a contested employment situation.” The school was opened in 2000 in Ann Arbor, Mich, but later announced that it would move in 2009 to Florida. Faculty members have been at odds with Dean Bernard Dobranski and Board Chairman Tom Monaghan (the founder of Domino’s Pizza) for years.

The lawsuit by Professors Stephen Safranek, Edward Lyons and Phil Pucillo alleges that they were retaliated against for being whistleblowers as well as violation of contractual agreements.

Recently, coverage suggests that the law school has spent over a million dollars in fees, here.

The lawsuit filed in a Michigan court names the school, its association, Dean Bernard Dobranski and Board Chairman Tom Monaghan, the founder and primary donor.

Last year, the faculty passed of “no confidence” in Dobranski and asked the board to remove him. However, Dobranski has the continued support of Monaghan and the vote was ignored. The school is under investigation by the American Bar Association.

Both faculty and students have brought lawsuit recently against such religious schools as Oral Roberts University and Regents University Law School.

It is hard to see how the law school can prevail entirely on such a claim. It would effectively mean that religious-based schools have immunity from contractual and wrongful termination lawsuits. There are a great variety of Church-based schools from Georgetown to DePaul to Catholic universities. Ave Maria appears to be in a different category with much greater control exercised over faculty and curriculum. Ironically, it appears control not as much by the Church as Monaghan. Nevertheless, even more established schools like DePaul have been subject to complaints recently, here. However, these complaints are directed at the authoritarian approach of the president — a problem not unknown to secular universities.

The university states the following mission:

Founded in fidelity to Christ and His Church in response to the call of Vatican II for greater lay witness in contemporary society, Ave Maria University exists to further teaching, research, and learning at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the abiding tradition of Catholic thought in both national and international settings. The University takes as its mission the sponsorship of a liberal arts education curriculum dedicated, as articulated in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, to the advancement of human culture, the promotion of dialogue between faith and reason, the formation of men and women in the intellectual and moral virtues of the Catholic faith, and to the development of professional and pre-professional programs in response to local and societal needs. As an institution committed to Catholic principles, the University recognizes the importance of creating and maintaining an environment in which faith informs the life of the community and takes expression in all its programs.

Here is the motion to dismiss: june09_1_mtn

For the story, click here.

26 thoughts on “Ave Maria Law School Invokes Status as Religious Institution and “Ecclesiastical Abstention” to Dismiss Law Professors’ Lawsuit”

  1. The huge number of Justice Dept staff from Regent and Liberty University appointed under George W Bush was really scary. I remember the blond lady being questioned at a hearing on one of Alberto Gonzales’ scandals, when asked what she “had sworn to uphold and defend” answered “the President’s orders.” (or something close to that)

  2. Monahan has found the perfect venue in Florida for for both school and town. Florida is a state where money talks loudest.

  3. Some of you naughty little Catholic boys have said some bad things about “my’ law school, but you should be a little more considerate, or else I will see to it that Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.

  4. It’s possible that they’re still confused. Creationism in the docket you could say.

  5. Vince,

    Beat me too it, Blish has long been one of my favorite sci-fi authors. Although I don’t think any discussion of Catholicism in Sci-fiction is complete without a mention of Walter Miller.

    I think there might be a passing mention in Mote in God’s Eye, but I could be wrong about that, it’s been a long time since I’ve read that one.

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