Divorced Catholic Doctor Prevails in Challenge to Firing

(CN) – A Catholic hospital in Germany failed to persuade an EU magistrate Thursday that it was justified in firing a doctor because of his divorce.

Having redacted all identifying information, the ruling out of Luxembourg this morning identifies the doctor in question only by the initials JQ. The doctor had been head of internal medicine at a hospital in Cologne for five years when he and his wife separated.

A year later, the doctor moved in with a new woman, and they got married in a civil ceremony after his divorce went through in 2008.

Advocate General Melchior Wathelet emphasizes in the opinion Thursday that it is unclear who divorced whom, but that it is of little consequence to his analysis.

Another point that the ruling emphasizes is that the doctor is himself Catholic, and that he did not get an annulment before remarrying.

After the hospital learned about JQ’s second marriage, it fired him in 2009. Even though JQ pointed out that the hospital allowed his Protestant colleagues to divorce and remarry without consequence, the hospital insisted that JQ’s dismissal was socially justified.

As summarized by Wathelet, the hospital said that JQ “clearly infringed his obligations under his employment relationship” by entering into a marriage that is invalid under canon law.

Though the hospital failed to defend its dismissal before three levels of the country’s labor court, the Federal Constitutional Court set the judgment aside and stayed the proceedings to invite input from the European Court of Justice.

Wathelet, whose opinion is not binding on the Luxembourg-based court, recommended Thursday that the doctor prevail.

“ In this case, the occupational requirement is not membership of a particular religion … but rather the professing of a particular belief of the Catholic Church, namely the concept of marriage defined by the doctrine and canon law of the Catholic Church, which includes respect for the religious form of marriage and the sacred and indissoluble nature of the bonds of matrimony,” Wathelet wrote. “It is clear that such a profession of belief does not constitute, in this case, an occupational requirement, much less one that is genuine and justified.”

Wathelet emphasized that the hospital’s requirements for religious marriage have no link whatsoever to the provision of health care services and patient care.

“The proof of this is that membership of the Catholic Church is not a required condition for the role of Head of the Internal Medicine Department and that IR [the hospital] recruits non-Catholics for roles with medical responsibility and entrusts managerial duties to them,” he wrote. “Furthermore, since it is directed at JQ’s private and family life, the requirement in question has no possible link with the administrative tasks for which he is responsible as the Head of Department in the department concerned. Therefore, this is not a real occupational requirement.”

Wathelet also emphasized “that there is no expectation on the part of [JQ’s] patients and colleagues that the head of the Internal Medicine Department be Catholic and still less that he not have contracted a marriage that is invalid on the basis of the doctrine and canon law of the Catholic Church.”

“On the contrary, what is important for those individuals is his qualifications and medical skills and his abilities as a good administrator,” the opinion continues.

“For the same reasons, the requirement in question is far from being justified.”

The ruling says that the hospital can hardly be said to have suffered harm to its ethos or right to autonomy because of JQ’s divorce and remarriage.

If JQ’s role as head of department truly had bearing, meanwhile, Wathelet questioned why the hospital did not even consider demoting him to the position of a doctor without any managerial role.

Though the hospital argued that Wathelet’s interpretation would require it to hire only Catholics, Wathelet said “such a recruitment policy would be clearly incompatible with [EU directives] … because religion could not be classified as a genuine and justified occupational requirement for jobs linked to the provision of health care services.”

Another point that the hospital fumbled was its argument that it would have to hold all employees to the high Catholic standards if the court says it cannot apply gradations based on their faiths.

“I am not convinced that this would necessarily be problematic,” Wathelet wrote, “since some of the grounds for dismissal … apply to all IR [hospital] employees, irrespective of their faith. For example, that provision prohibits all employees from publicly defending positions contrary to the principles of the Catholic Church concerning abortion. The same applies to personal moral failings such as, for example, crimes against human life or personal integrity.”

In addition to abbreviating the doctor’s name, the hospital’s name is listed only as IR.

“Its purpose is to carry out the work of Caritas (the international confederation of Catholic charitable organizations) as an expression of the life and nature of the Roman Catholic Church through, among other things, the operation of hospitals,” the ruling states.

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