Catholic Church Argues for Exception to Worker Rights at Seventh Circuit

A Chicago-area Catholic church argued in federal appeals court for its religious right to treat ministerial employees however it chooses, including firing them for otherwise discriminatory reasons.

(AP Photo/Rod McGuirk, File)

CHICAGO (CN) — The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago said in an appeals court hearing Tuesday that it has the right to treat certain employees however it wants, despite that conduct being discriminatory in a secular workplace.

In front of an en banc 10-judge panel in the Seventh Circuit, the church fought against a federal judge’s decision to allow one hostile work environment claim from a former church employee to move forward, citing the “ministerial exception” in the First Amendment.

Sandor Demkovich, a gay man with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, worked as the music and choir director for St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Calumet City, Illinois, for two years.

During that time he was often harassed by church’s head paster, Jacek Dada, for being gay and overweight, according to Demkovich’s original 2016 complaint.

Demkovich claimed that Dada, who is not a party to the case, complained that he “didn’t want to preach at his funeral” and that he should walk Dada’s dog for exercise because it was costing the church too much to cover his health insurance.

Once Demkovich’s same-sex marriage date came closer, Dada allegedly started telling other employees that he would be asked to resign if he went through with it.

Just days after the wedding, Dada did ask him to resign and fired him once he refused.

Demkovich sued St. Andrew and the Archdiocese of Chicago for Title VII discrimination as well as employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and several state statutes.

The church argued that it had the right to fire Demkovich based on the Catholic faith’s beliefs against homosexuality, as protected by the First Amendment.

According to the ministerial 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.

U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang, a Barack Obama appointee, agreed and dismissed all of Demkovich’s claims in 2017.

“As a matter of federal constitutional law – not state law – the archdiocese cannot be held liable for a firing in an employment discrimination case brought by their minister,” Chang wrote, adding that Demkovich was responsible for the church’s message through its music.

In his amended complaint, Demkovich moved from wrongful termination to hostile workplace claims, detailing the various racial and other slurs Dada allegedly used at work referring to female, Black and Hispanic staff members and said the pastor called his own nuptials a “fag wedding.”

Chang once again dismissed the claims based on sexual orientation due to the ministerial exception but did allow those focusing on Demkovich’s medical disability to go forward.

“The archdiocese offers no religious explanation for the alleged disability discrimination. The archdiocese justifies the comments as ‘reflect[ing] the pastor’s subjective views and/or evaluation of plaintiff’s fitness for his position as a minister.’ But this is not a religious justification based on any church doctrine or belief,” the judge wrote.

The church appealed to the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit, where a three-judge panel ruled against it last August. It sought an en banc rehearing, asking for all remaining claims to be thrown out.

“The court is already in a religious thicket,” archdiocese attorney James C. Geoly of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella said Tuesday. “It’s in a place it doesn’t belong.”

Religious organizations do not have to conduct themselves in the same way as a secular business, Geoly pointed out, and their rights to select and terminate employees are heavily protected.

“There is always a church autonomy principal in place under the Constitution,” he argued, and “the very nature of this claim is to scrutinize the religious workplace itself.”

“Employment discrimination claims intrude upon the relationship between a minister and their church,” he said, adding that “ministers are the lifeblood of the church. They personify the church.”

Geoly said that Demkovich’s hostile workplace claims are merely repackaged in the amended complaint.

“Carving out an exception to an exception renders it pointless,” the attorney said. “The very evils that led the Supreme Court to adopt the ministerial exception apply with equal force to hostile work environment claims.”

Legally, pastors can say whatever they want to those who report to them in a ministerial position, Geoly argued, and “how a church chooses to admonish the minister is not up to the minister, it’s up to the church.”

“In the eyes of a religious superior, very harsh words may be needed,” he said. “A court shouldn’t be sitting in judgment of the words chosen.”

David L. Franklin of Lavelle Law, representing Demkovich, said the church’s arguments “sweep far more broadly than the First Amendment requires.”

“The ministerial exception was never intended to provide an absolute shield,” Franklin posited. “I think that just misunderstands employment discrimination law.”

He said that rather than protecting the relationship between ministers, the exception only bars the state “from asking or answering questions of religious doctrine.”

“Tangible actions map quite neatly into the ministerial exception, while hostile environment claims don’t,” Franklin argued.

The attorney said it’s on the church to prove that the allegedly unlawful acts were in line with its religious belief, saying many cases like this “have nothing to do with religious justification.”

“If the church asserts that the course of conduct was religiously motivated, then the court has a very limited and deferential role,” Franklin said, but argued the church has not said that about Demkovich’s disability claims.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Diane S. Sykes, a George W. Bush appointee, remarked that there is a “zone of protection around a religious institution and its ministers.”

The en banc panel took the case under advisement and did not indicate when it would rule.

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