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Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice


Roman Catholic schools developed in the United States during the latter part of the 19th century partially in response to a significant wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that swept the nation. Consequently, Catholic schools were established as a kind of parallel system largely free from civil laws, as bishops, pastors, and other religious leaders were free to operate their schools largely under the Church's own internal juridical system, the Code of Canon Law. However, by the middle of the 20th century, due to a variety of demographic factors, the composition of Catholic schools began to change dramatically, particularly with regard to the composition of their faculties from being largely composed of members of the religious life to predominately lay. At the same time, changes in the legal environment in the United States also significantly impacted Catholic schools since they provided leaders with greater mechanisms for control over the schools.

Along with the transformation in the make up of teachers, leaders in Catholic schools led the initiative to ensure that religious leaders would be able to retain significant governance authority in their schools even as Congress enacted federal anti-discrimination statutes, most notably Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Title VII proscribes discrimination on a variety of factors, most notably, for the focus of this article, religion. Church leaders sought to retain control over their schools through statutory exemptions that would essentially have afforded them the opportunity to continue to rely on the Code of Canon Law and Church teachings as the primary juridical vehicle in school governance. In light of the healthy working relationship, or partnership, between American civil law and the Code of Canon Law, this article is divided into four substantive sections. After providing an overview of the background on Catholic schools in the first section, the next part of the article highlights key elements of canon law relating to Catholic schools. The following part examines the role of contracts and federal anti-discrimination statutes along with representative illustrations of litigation interpreting and applying these laws in disputes impacting the governance of Catholic schools.

These two sections of the article examine the ways in which canon law and American law interact when bishops and educational leaders assert their governance authority over schools, and, more properly, their employees, mostly teachers, who are seeking to ensure their contractual and statutory rights. This part of the article pays particular attention to Title VII, the major federal anti-discrimination in employment statute because the exemptions that it grants to religious employers to avoid charges of discrimination based on religion essentially defer to the Code of Canon Law as the vehicle driving governance in Roman Catholic schools. The final substantive section of the article reflects on the relationship between the two divergent systems of law that are at the center of this analysis while offering seven recommendations for educational leaders in Catholic institutions who must walk the fine line between complying with the Code of Canon Law and American civil law in the governance of their schools. The article rounds out with a brief conclusion.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (CC-BY).

The publication was renamed the Journal of Catholic Education in 2013.

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Loyola Marymount University





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Los Angeles, CA

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