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. What is going on with Ave Maria was entirely predictable and reflects two related problems:
    1. No individual, regardless of religious affiliation, can properly form a university, fund it from his own resources, or resources to which he has access, personally control its mission and governance, and call it an educational institution. In this instance, Mr. Monaghan is no different from Oral Roberts, Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, all of whom have sought to shape institutions in their own image, infuse them with their own values and restrict access to opposing viewpoints. That is not what a university is intended to be.

    2. No institution should either expect or be granted accreditation unless it agrees to adhere to certain fundamental values, including academic freedom for its faculty.

    Mr. Monaghan’s vision of Catholicism hardly represents the best in Catholic intellectual tradition in this country. His qualifications are limited to the ability to teach others how to make pizza. That he regards himself as an educator is silly; his creation is merely a tribute to himself.

    My belief is that people of great means who wish to make financial contributions to educational institutions ought to simply write large checks to their favorites, drop them in the mail and shut the hell up.

  2. Excellent suggestion, Pardon. Also take a look at Jim Blish’s take in the 1950s, A Case of Conscience.

    (Note that he predicted a non-Italian, northern European Pope — another SF “prediction” come true).

  3. Naples daily news recently finished a three part series about the newly created town Ave Marie in Florida. Citizens will have no voting rights. A personally crafted law gives Monaghan (founder of the law school) and Barron Collier Cos. more power than any Florida developer in at least 24 years, power perhaps not seen since the days of the early 20th century land boom. The law makes landowners, not registered voters, the ultimate authority in Ave Maria. The law ensures Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., as the largest landowners, can control Ave Maria’s government forever.


  4. mespo,

    I think the “next paragraph”, that you quoted, does well to demonstrate Jefferson’s belief in one’s freedom to choose a religion.

    An honest man can still be quite gullible. However, I think we would do well to recognize that gullibility is like comfort food for the lazy mind. -Or should I say…the lazy mind is a great place to cultivate the comfort food of faith.

  5. Buddha,
    Thanks for the kind words for my daughter. I think you may have created a new bumper sticker, “The Jesuits do it right”!

  6. Why, Jim Byrne, you forgot the next line of Jefferson’s letter to James Smith (12/8/1822) penned when he was eighty. After remonstrating those who would forsake reason for gullibilities of religion explainled the purpose of religion as follows:

    “I write with freedom, because, while I claim a right to believe in one God, if so my reason tells me, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men, and that is the only point society has any right to look to.”

  7. “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.” —Thomas Jefferson

  8. The thing is, they moved to Florida. With their desire for such a high degree of control over their faculty and students they are going to run smack into Xenu’s territory (literally and figuratively). This could get very interesting. Maybe the US could have our own reality TV show called: Church Smackdown, the battle for obediance and the lawsuits that result.

  9. I wish Sinatra was the Pope. Then we would only have to kiss his ring.

  10. Old story. Invent a new psychotherapy, but don’t want to pay taxes. Claim that it is a religion called Scientology. L Ron Hubbard, 1954.

    Share a rooming house on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., but don’t want to pay property taxes. Claim that it is a religious property. John Ensign, 133 C St SE, Washington DC, 2009.

    Start a law school, but want immunity from well-founded legal claims of breach of contract. Claim you are a religion, and all your profs are priests. Ave Maria, 2009.

  11. raff,

    I’ll just say I admire your daughter’s choice and agree that the Jesuits do it right.

  12. raff,

    “What we he do with Money Makers?”

    According to Paul, He made them Pope, a Cardinal or a Bishop. 😀 Paul was the first televangilist. Kiss this ring, say the secret word and win eternal salvation . .. but tithe us first. I dare say that as an economic endeavor that the RCC wins that race for $$$ handily.

  13. Buddha,
    I must have been writing my earlier post when you posted yours. My daughter is a 3L at Loyola Law School in Chicago and they don’t seem to have the same problems that Regent and others do. They even have Gay Student associations on the website so they must be more open to the real world. The Jesuits have always been know to be the liberal thinkers of the church.

  14. Mespo is right that the mixing of Church and State almost always produces bad results. Mr. Monaghan is a well known ultra right wing Catholic. I hadn’t even realized that Ava Maria had moved to Florida. I hope the faculty is successful in their lawsuit, but they are in Florida so who knows what the outcome will be. As Professor Turley suggests, DePaul has plenty of company in their troubles between adminstration and the faculty. Didn’t Jesus chase the money changers out of his temple? What we he do with Money Makers?

  15. Although I attended a nominally Catholic private law school and had no issues with any Catholic agenda being pushed upon students, it’s schools like this and Regent that makes me question the wisdom of allowing any religious institution to run a law school period. We have Separation of Church and State for a reason and as the law allows there is neither room for either endorsement nor excessive entanglement, how is accrediting a school like Regent with an overt Christianity First agenda, not endorsement? How about this statement from the Dean of Regents found in a Boston Globe article: “As the dean of a lower-ranked law school that benefited from the Bush administration’s hiring practices, Jeffrey Brauch of Regent made no apologies in a recent interview for training students to understand what the law is today, and also to understand how legal rules should be changed to better reflect “eternal principles of justice,” from divorce laws to abortion rights.

    “We anticipate that many of our graduates are going to go and be change agents in society,” Brauch said.”

    How is that not begging for excessive entanglement? You don’t have to be a propaganda wizard to see through the bullshit code words that hack is using to describe his fundamentalist agenda to “Jesus-i-fy” our legal system in contravention of case law and the Constitution. It’s an attempt at a backdoor theocratic coup de teat by zealots. Schools exhibiting this kind of behavior should be stripped of accreditation and the IRS should revoke their tax status.

  16. It was bound to happen. When you form a school of indoctrination not all academics will go along, so you must inevitable invoke some 17th Century theological reasoning to keep them in line. It’s as old as Vatican v. Galileo, which ended badly for both plaintiff and defendant.

  17. Well when you used to own the Tiger’s and land your very own personal Helicopter during a game, I guess you can do anything else you want.

    Tom’s philosophy is if is not in tradition of the church and its values are questionable then he has no use for it. I know one of his children quite well and aside from the clothes she wears (conservative) to the trips that she takes, you would never know she had a dime to spend. For being a billionaires daughter she is as common as you or I.

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