Full 7th Circuit will review scope of “ministerial exception” to Employment Discrimination Laws

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Full 7th Circuit will review scope of “ministerial exception” to Employment Discrimination Laws

December 9, 2020

As reported by Reuters, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday granted en banc review of a recent panel decision that said the exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws for religious employers from claims brought by “ministers” does not apply to harassment and hostile work environment claims.

In the case, Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the court in a brief order vacated the panel's 2-1 ruling in August that had revived a lawsuit by Sandor Demkovich, the former music director of a Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago in Illinois who claims he faced a hostile work environment because he was criticized for a same sex marriage and for being overweight.

Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel that the so-called "ministerial exception" to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies only to "tangible employment actions" such as hiring, firing, and job assignments, and not unlawful harassment. Judge Hamilton went further, also holding that, as to comments about Demkovich’s same sex marriage, the first amendment did not prohibit a court from hearing a claim based on a pastor’s comments to a subordinate minister expressing the pastor’s view of his church’s religious teachings.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Joel Flaum said religious organizations' constitutional right to select and control their ministers includes "the ability to supervise, manage, and communicate with them free from government interference."

"Adjudicating Demkovich's hostile work environment claims will unavoidably and excessively entangle the courts in religious matters at the core of the protected ministerial employment relationship," Flaum wrote.

In October amicus briefs, the Catholic Conferences of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin (the states in the Seventh Circuit), the attorneys general of Indiana, Texas and four other states, and many other religious denominations backed the Archdiocese’s petition for en banc review.

"Courts are secular agencies with no authority over matters of church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them," said the attorneys general.

Two of our partners, Jim Geoly and Alex Marks, handled this case through the panel argument. Jim then became general counsel of the Archdiocese of Chicago and is now working on the case with the Firm.

The case is Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-2142.

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