7th Circuit Applies Ministerial Exception to Hostile Work Environment Cases

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In a 7-3 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit dismissed a hostile work environment lawsuit filed by Sandor Demkovich, a former music director, against St. Andrew the Apostle Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago. In Demokovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claim fell under the “ministerial exception” to employment law.

Defining the Ministerial Exception

The ministerial exception is an application of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. More specifically, the exception recognizes the constitutionally-protected interest in the ministers of a religious organization or church under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.

This doctrine protects religious organizations from lawsuits concerning employment discrimination and disputes filed by employees designated as ministers. The exception applies to the hiring, control, and termination of employees who fit this classification.

Decision Deepens Split Between Circuit Courts of Appeal

The 7th Circuit joined the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in applying the ministerial exception to hostile work environment claims. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the ministerial exception does not apply to hostile work environment claims. A continued split on the issue could increase the chances of U.S. Supreme Court review.

Background of the Hostile Work Environment Claim

Demokovich filed a hostile work environment claim against the parish and archdiocese in 2016, claiming that the priest at his church subjected him to a hostile work environment based on his disability and sexual orientation, leading him to be harassed and fired. A U.S. district court dismissed the sexual orientation claim based on religion, but the court allowed the disability claim to go forward. A panel of the 7th Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, but the church sought en banc review.

The Court’s Majority Opinion

In its majority opinion, the Court found that the ministerial exception barred all of the claims filed by Demkovich, as religious organizations have absolute discretion in whom they choose to employ as ministers. Allowing Demokovich’s minister-on-minister harassment claims, the Court reasoned, would undermine the constitutionally protected relationship between religious organizations and their ministers. Ruling otherwise also would allow civil courts to become excessively entangled with religious matters.

The Court based its opinion mainly on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In that case, the High Court ruled that Catholic school teachers could not file wrongful termination lawsuits against their former employers if their duties included religious instruction.

The Dissent

Three members of the Court dissented, arguing that courts should consider the ministerial exception as applied to hostile work environment claims on a case-by-case basis. They stated that not all hostile work environment claims should be subject to an absolute bar by the ministerial exception. The dissent also noted that religious organizations remain subject to tort and criminal laws and that excluding the application of employment discrimination laws to religious organizations is arbitrary.

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