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Appeals Court: Teacher can sue parochial school

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A teacher fired from an Albuquerque parochial school has the right to sue her former employer, despite the protections afforded religious institutions from some civil lawsuits, according to a recent state Court of Appeals ruling.

Melissa Galetti, who was employed at Crestview Christian Academy, in Albuquerque from 2009 to 2012, sued the Texico Conference Association of Seventh Day Adventists, which operates the school, and three of its employees.

Galetti claimed she was fired illegally because she filed a harassment charge against her supervisor.

Second Judicial District Court Judge Shannon Bacon dismissed the lawsuit in November 2012, citing the “church autonomy doctrine,” which stems from the First Amendment.

The doctrine “prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance and policy,” according to the appeals court.

The appeals court ruled last month that Bacon’s dismissal was wrong because the doctrine doesn’t protect against civil lawsuits that deal with secular matters.

“The first amendment does not immunize every legal claim against a religious institution or its members, but only those claims that are rooted in religious belief. … As pled, (Galetti’s) claims are not rooted in religious belief,” Appeals Judge Timothy L. Garcia wrote.

The lawsuit will now head back to district court to be argued.

Galetti’s attorney, Wayne Suggett, said the ruling helps clarify when an employee of a religious institution can bring civil charges against his or her employer.

The Texico Conference Association of Seventh Day Adventists issued a statement through its lawyer, Edward Ricco.

“The church is disappointed that the Court of Appeals did not consider the dismissal of Ms. Galetti’s lawsuit to have been appropriate at this point in the litigation. The church will continue its defense of the lawsuit,” the statement read.

Galetti’s lawsuit accuses the church of wrongful termination. It accuses three church employees, including the supervisor she accused of harassing her, Derral Reeve, with defamation and civil conspiracy.

She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and interest and attorney fees.