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Appeals Court Shields Chicago Church From Gay Minister’s Harassment Case

The en banc Seventh Circuit found a doctrine known as the ministerial exception protects churches from hostile work environment claims.

CHICAGO (CN) —  The full Seventh Circuit ruled that the Chicago archdiocese cannot be sued by a former minister who claims he was discriminated against and fired because he is gay.    

In an opinion issued late Friday, the en banc Chicago-based appeals court found that Sandor Demkovich cannot pursue hostile work environments claims against St. Andrew the Apostle Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago because of a First Amendment legal doctrine known as the ministerial exception.

Under the exception, religious institutions are allowed to hire and fire employees that act as ministers of the church – by communicating its message – for any reason that is dictated by their beliefs.

The issue before the Seventh Circuit was whether the exception protects the church from a hostile work environment case, and in a split 7-3 ruling the en banc court found that it did.

“The First Amendment ministerial exception protects a religious organization’s employment relationship with its ministers, from hiring to firing and the supervising in between. Adjudicating a minister’s hostile work environment claims based on interaction between ministers would undermine this constitutionally protected relationship,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the majority.

Brennan, a Donald Trump appointee, went on to write that hashing out “allegations of minister-on-minister harassment would not only undercut a religious organization’s constitutionally protected relationship with its ministers, but also cause civil intrusion into, and excessive entanglement with, the religious sphere."

Demkovich, who originally filed his lawsuit in 2016, was employed by the church in 2012 as a music and choir director. He claimed in his complaint that he was continually harassed by the church’s head pastor for being gay and overweight.

This harassment culminated in his firing, which Demkovich says happened just days after he got married and after he refused to resign.

The case was originally dismissed by U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang in 2017, when the Barack Obama appointee found that the church was protected against such claims.

Demkovich then filed an amended complaint. This time, Chang only dismissed the claims based upon Demkovich’s sexual orientation and allowed discrimination claims based upon his health condition to move forward.

The church appealed that ruling to a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit, which ruled against it, causing the church to seek an en banc rehearing before the full court in an effort to toss out all remaining claims against it.

While seven of the judges on the en banc panel ruled in favor of the church, the dissenting three judges highlighted an ongoing rift among courts over the ministerial exception.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote in the dissent that he believed the majority attempted to make the case seem clear “by scarcely acknowledging or engaging with the arguments” on Demkovich’s side.

“The majority tells us that the risks of unconstitutional intrusion and entanglement between civil courts and faith communities are just too great to allow any such lawsuit,” Hamilton wrote. “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. It instead creates for religious institutions a constitutional shelter from generally applicable laws, at the expense of the rights of employees.”

Hamilton noted there is a circuit split on the issue, pointing to opposing rulings from the Ninth and Tenth Circuits over whether the ministerial exception protects churches against hostile work environment claims from minsters.

The Seventh Circuit majority, however, found the Chicago archdiocese's arguments convincing, in a decision that was heralded by one of the church’s legal representatives.

“The court ruled that the government can’t interfere in the ministerial relationship between a church and worship leaders,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at the Becket law firm. “It’s common sense that if the government can’t tell a church which ministers to hire or fire, it also can’t manage churches’ ministerial relationships in between.”  

Attorney David L. Franklin, who argued on behalf of Demkovich, did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the ruling.

Follow David Wells on Twitter

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