En banc 7th Circuit splits over reach of ministerial exception

An Illinois church organist who claimed he was fired as part of a hostile work environment has split the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals over the interpretation of recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent as to how far the ministerial exception protects religious organizations.

“… (W)e apply the ministerial exception in the way the Supreme Court has applied it,” Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the majority of the Chicago appellate court, which found the lawsuit against the Catholic Church should be dismissed. “Just as a religious organization need not proffer a religious justification for termination claims, a religious organization need not do so for hostile work environment claims.”

But the dissent, led by Judge David Hamilton, argued the majority was extending Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), beyond the limits the Supreme Court imposed on its own ruling.

“By focusing too much on religious liberty and too little on counterarguments and other interests, the majority opinion takes our circuit’s law beyond necessary protection of religious liberty,” Hamilton wrote. “It instead creates for religious institutions a constitutional shelter from generally applicable laws, at the expense of the rights of employees.”

The case began when Sandor Demkovich, music director, choir director and organist at St. Andrews the Apostle Parish in Calumet City, Illinois, a Roman Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Chicago, filed a federal lawsuit after his employment was terminated in September 2014. Demkovich claimed he was fired because he was gay, married to a man and suffered from health problems that impacted his weight.

In his initial complaint, Demkovich alleged the church had violated Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed, finding the church was protected by the ministerial exception.

Demkovich then amended his complaint to include allegations of discriminatory termination as hostile work environment claims. The district court dismissed the hostile work environment claims based on sex, sexual orientation and marital status. But the court did allow the disability-based claims to proceed on the grounds that the ministerial exception did not categorically bar Demkovich’s hostile work environment allegations.

The church then made an interlocutory appeal to the 7th Circuit, which raised the question of how much the ministerial exception covered. After a divided panel affirmed the district court’s decision, the court reviewed the matter en banc and reversed with an opinion issued Friday in Sandor Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, 19-2142.

In 26-page opinion by Brennan, the majority relied heavily on Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru, 140 S. Ct. ___ (2020).

The majority held that Demkovich’s duties were liturgical by nature and, as such, his entire employment relationship fell under the religious liberty protection offered by the First Amendment, which “gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations.” The judges saw any adjudication of Demkovich’s hostile work environment claims as leading to an “impermissible intrusion into, and excessive entanglement with, the religious sphere.”

“The First Amendment ministerial exception protects a religious organization’s employment relationship with its ministers, from hiring to firing and the supervising in between,” Brennan wrote. “Adjudicating a minister’s hostile work environment claims based on interaction between ministers would undermine this constitutionally protected relationship. It would also result in civil intrusion upon and excessive entanglement with the religious realm, departing from the teachings of Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Therefore, the ministerial exception precludes Demkovich’s hostile work environment claims against the church.”

Hamilton’s dissent, which was jointed by Judges Ilana Rovner and Diane Wood, disputed the majority’s reading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe. He noted the justices explicitly put limits on the decision by specifically noting they were not deciding the question Demkovich raised as to whether the ministerial exception applies to suits that do not result from the firing of a ministerial employee.

The dissent argued that Demkovich’s amended complaint addressed only his treatment by his supervisor while he was employed and does not challenge his firing or any other tangible employment action. This, the minority asserted, falls “squarely into the area” Hosanna-Tabor declined to address.

“The question we face here, whether the ministerial exception should extend to hostile environmental claims, was neither presented nor decided. Also, we already know that the First Amendment does not bar civil courts from all aspects of a minister’s employment relationship. It has long been clear that civil courts may award damages for breaches of employment contracts,” Hamilton wrote, citing Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 606 (1979).

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