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Catholic parish can fire gay music director under ministerial exception, appeals court rules

Church organ
Unsplash/Matt Meilner

An appeals court has ruled that an Illinois Catholic parish and its archdiocese could legally fire a music director because he had entered a same-sex marriage, as his relationship conflicted with Church teaching.

In a 7-3 en bacn ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided last Friday to reject an employee harassment claim by Sandor Demkovich against St. Andrew the Apostle Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The decision vacated an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit and sent the case back to a lower court with instructions to dismiss the lawsuit against the archdiocese and parish.

Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, a Trump appointee, authored the majority opinion. He concluded that the “ministerial exception” for religious employers does apply to “hostile work environment claims based on minister-on-minister harassment.”

“The contours of the ministerial relationship are best left to a religious organization, not a court. Within a religious organization, workplace conflict among ministers takes on a constitutionally protected character,” wrote Brennan.

“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.”

Brennan concluded that the court weighing in on the plaintiff's hostile work environment claims would be problematic since “what one minister says in supervision of another could constitute stern counsel to some or tread into bigotry to others.”

“How is a court to determine discipline from discrimination? Or advice from animus?” continued Brennan. “These questions and others like them cannot be answered without infringing upon a religious organization’s rights.”

Circuit Judge David Hamilton authored a dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority had focused “too little on counterarguments” and reached a decision “at the expense of the rights of employees.”

“In each of these types of cases, there is some risk of burdening religious liberty and entangling civil and religious affairs. But the First Amendment does not categorically defeat any of them,” wrote Hamilton, an Obama appointee.

“In this case, however, the majority adopts a broad exception for any hostile environment claims by ministerial employees. That produces an oddly arbitrary line.”

Hamilton believes the majority opinion “departs from a long practice of carefully balancing civil law and religious liberty.”

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, a religious freedom legal nonprofit that joined the litigation on behalf of the Archdiocese, celebrated the ruling. He said that the court's ruling that the government can't interfere in the ministerial relationship between a church and worship leaders is "common sense." 

“Worship is sacred. That’s why worship leaders who select and perform elements of worship are ministers of the faith, conveying its teachings to the faithful,” Blomberg said in a statement.

“That’s also why the church — not the state — gets to make sure that its music ministers are directing its congregation in a way that’s faithful to its beliefs.”

In 2016, Demkovich filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese and the parish, accusing them of workplace harassment and unlawful firing when he was dismissed in 2014 for marrying a man.

Demkovich, who suffers from metabolic syndrome and other health issues, also accused the parish of creating a hostile work environment based on disability.

A district court judge ruled against his sexual orientation claim but allowed his disability claim to move forward. In August of last year, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Demkovich for both the disability and sexual orientation claims.

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