By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Chris Orr has lost his last two court cases to Christian Brothers High School due to the ministerial exception clause but he vows to continue the fight. Orr has no training in performing duties of religious worship.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against former Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) principal Chris Orr, upholding a lower court’s decision that Orr was a “minister of the school” and dismissing his complaints of discrimination.

A three-judge panel ruled that Orr, who was CBHS’s first Black principal, was fired legally without reason because his employment is categorized as “ministerial.” The educator said he respects the decision and vowed to continue pursuing the case.

“Needless to say, I am disappointed in the ruling,” Orr told the OBSERVER by telephone. “Transparently, we’ve seen a lot of injustices throughout our country. So I know the history that comes before us. But we just have to keep fighting. That’s what we do. I’m going to stand up and fight until there’s no more fight in me.”

At 142 years and counting, CBHS is Sacramento’s longest-thriving private Catholic high school and has nearly 1,200 students. 

Through Singer Associates Public Relations, CBHS representatives released a statement saying they are “pleased” with the outcome of the ruling.  

“Throughout the course of this legal process, there have been hurtful accusations leveled against the school and its leaders,” CBHS’s letter stated.  “We reject those accusations in the strongest possible terms.”

CBHS argued that its defense aligns with a July 8, 2020, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. That ruling found that the “ministerial exception” falls under the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The significant ruling shields employers at religious institutions from anti-discrimination lawsuits. 

The Supreme Court leaned on its 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in which the court applied the “ministerial exception” only to employees with the title “minister” who had religious training. 

Hosanna-Tabor held that, under the First Amendment, religious institutions have complete freedom to decide whom they employ as “ministers,” unbridled by anti-discrimination laws.

Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Samuel Alito clarified the meaning in July 2020, explaining that the ministerial exception “protects the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government intrusion.”

In January, a federal judge dismissed Orr’s lawsuit. He appealed to the 9th Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction for district courts in California and eight other western states. CBHS was able to successfully argue that the broader clarification of ministerial exception applies to Orr’s former position with the Catholic school. 

In contrast to his educational background, Orr has no training in performing duties of religious worship. 

“Christian Brothers didn’t consider me a minister until I filed the lawsuit,” Orr told the OBSERVER. “For them to use this in a way to get out of a lawsuit I think is immoral.

“I am an educator. I have never ministered to anyone, ever, in my life. Unfortunately, that ruling is saying that all of the teachers at (CBHS), former or current, are ministers.

“The ministerial exception was not written to take away civil rights from people. I worked 15 years in public education before I took the job at (CBHS). Never did I work in a Catholic school. I’ve never officiated a funeral or a wedding. Never.”

“I am a man of God but not a minister.”

Orr said he and his lawyer will continue to litigate the case through every means possible, including a “Petition for Rehearing En Banc.”

Cases heard en banc give the full circuit court power to overturn a decision reached by a three-judge panel. Orr said he could only speak on the process and how it could support his case.

“One of the pieces myself and my attorneys took away is that the [three-judge panel] did state that my racial harassment claims could survive the ministerial exception if the claim were not intertwined with the employment decision,” Orr said.

Orr’s original 22-page court filing named CBHS and the school’s former president of the board and executive Lorcan Barnes as defendants. It listed eight significant complaints including employment discrimination, retaliation, equal rights in employment, racial harassment, failure to prevent discrimination, and wrongful retaliation. 

Orr is being represented by the Law Offices of Johnny L. Griffin III.

Barnes announced Orr’s dismissal Oct. 11, 2019. He had been appointed to the position in July 2017. Many parents, instructors, and students were upset over Orr’s removal, including his sister Tia Orr, the director of government affairs for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California. Parents and former instructors at Christian Brothers have held meetings, and students have conducted rallies and walkouts.

Former CBHS instructor Clifton West and his younger brother Dr. Cornel West, one of the nation’s foremost Black scholars and an outspoken political and social activist, have publicly supported Orr and his family. Dr. West participated in a rally in December 2019 at CBHS to bring national awareness to Orr’s differences with the Oak Park school. 

Dr. West at the time said the CBHS board members displayed “a spirit of arrogance” as well as “condescension, impunity, unaccountability” in handling Orr’s case.

On July 1, 2020, CBHS Board of Trustees President Steve Mahaney announced the appointment of Dr. Crystal LeRoy as its president and CEO, replacing Barnes. Dr. LeRoy, the fifth president in school history, is African American.

“Dr. LeRoy is a faith-filled and visionary leader,” Mahaney said.

 The school stated in a Nov. 23 letter,  “CBHS is proud of its history of diversity and inclusion and has never made an employment decision, admissions decision, or financial aid decision based upon race. Christian Brothers High School’s longtime commitment to inclusive community and respect for all persons is unwavering. This commitment extends to the school’s mission to serve low- and middle-income families.”

Orr started a new job last July as a principal with Capital Christian School (CCS), which represents more than 200 churches. 

Capital Christian School, it states on the school’s website, is tied to “an orthodox historical Christian faith.”