Recent Ministerial Exception Decision Involved an Interesting Twist

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The recent decision issued by Judge Edmund Chang of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment to the Archdiocese of Chicago in an employment discrimination case brought by a parish music director who was demoted to a “mere organist,” and then terminated. The plaintiff alleged national origin discrimination, retaliation, and age discrimination. The court granted summary judgment on the grounds that whether as a music director or “mere organist,” the plaintiff was a “minister” within the meaning of the “ministerial exception” to the federal employment discrimination laws, and therefore was barred by the First Amendment from contesting his demotion or termination.

This case had an interesting twist. The Archdiocese moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the pleadings, arguing that the ministerial exception clearly applied to both the demotion and the termination. Judge Chang granted the motion in part, agreeing that the demotion claim was barred because the complaint itself made clear that the music director was a “minister.” However, Judge Chang found an issue of fact, at least at the pleading stage, as to whether the plaintiff was still a minister after his demotion. The plaintiff argued that merely playing music at mass did not make him a “minister” as defined by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012). Judge Chang rejected the arguments at the motion to dismiss stage that (1) even playing music at mass — irrespective of who selects such music — was a form of worship and therefore ministerial, and (2) separating the demotion from the termination deprived a religious organization of discretion in the way it chose to discipline clergy (i.e., is a suspended clergyman no longer a minister?). Instead of deferring to the church on these questions, Judge Chang ordered limited discovery and invited a summary judgment motion.

On summary judgment, the court’s approach was entirely different. Judge Chang accepted the Archdiocese’s own definition of what constituted religious activity and, therefore, what constituted a minister within the church. The Archdiocese’s expert testified that even a “mere organist” leads prayer by playing the organ, and does so as one of the participants in the liturgy. The expert relied on “Sing to the Lord,” the definitive liturgical statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which states that “all pastoral musicians — professional or volunteer, full-time or part-time, director or choir member, cantor or instrumentalist — exercise a genuine liturgical ministry.” Despite the plaintiff’s contention that his “robotic” playing of music was not ministerial, the court found that the plaintiff could not create an issue of fact by contesting the church’s definition of its own liturgy and its designation of its own ministers. As Judge Chang held, “there is only so much that a federal court may do in questioning a church’s view of its own religious doctrine.”

The Firm’s Jim Geoly was assisted on this matter by Alex Marks. Jim can be reached at 312/840-7080 or jgeoly@burkelaw.com. Alex can be reached at 312/840-7022 or amarks@burkelaw.com.

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