Court of Appeal Protects Church’s Freedom in Employment Decisions

By TOM STRODE, Baptist Press

CHICAGO (BP) – Religious freedom advocates have praised a federal appeals court opinion that protects the freedom of churches and other religious groups in the face of government interference in decisions in employment.

In a 7-3 ruling on Friday, June 9, the Seventh Chicago Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception” encompasses not only hiring and firing by religious organizations, but the supervision of ministers during their employment. . The advisory overturned a 2-1 decision last August by a Seventh Circuit panel in favor of a music director fired by a Catholic church.

The case concerned a complaint about a hostile work environment by Sandor Demkovich, the music director of a Chicago-area Catholic church, who alleged discrimination based primarily on his “sexual orientation” and health concerns. When he was fired after marrying his longtime male partner, he filed a lawsuit against the church and the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Reversing its own panel, the Seventh Circuit Court said, “The First Amendment ministerial exception protects a religious organization’s working relationship with its ministers, from hiring to firing and supervision between the two. “

To hold “the allegations of a hostile working environment based on the interaction between the ministers would undermine this constitutionally protected relationship” and “would lead to civil intrusion and excessive entanglement in the religious realm,” the tribunal said in its majority opinion .

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and other faith-based organizations filed a friend of the court brief in October 2020 which urged the entire Seventh Circuit Court to rehear the case, claiming that the decision of the three-judge panel “calls for extraordinary secular interference with fundamental ecclesiastical judgments”.

“Church affairs is not a place where secular government authorities wield influence,” Chelsea Sobolik, ERLC policy director, said in written comments. “Our brief in this case strongly affirmed this principle, and we are delighted that the Seventh Circuit agrees with our point of view.

“It is a decision that defenders of religious freedom, like Baptists, can celebrate. … [I]It is imperative that the courts continue to uphold the ministerial exception because to do otherwise would render the separation of church and state meaningless.

Daniel Blomberg, senior lawyer for the religious freedom organization Becket, said in a written statement: “Worship is sacred. That is why cult leaders who select and perform worship items are ministers of the faith, imparting its teachings to the faithful. This is also why the church – not the state – must ensure that its music ministers lead its congregation in a manner that is true to its beliefs.

“It makes good sense that if the government cannot tell a church which ministers to hire or fire, it cannot manage ministerial relationships between churches either. “

Becket helped represent the church and the archdiocese in the case.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in a 2012 unanimous opinion – Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC – a “ministerial exception” exists which allows churches and other religious institutions to hire and fire based on their beliefs. The High Court reiterated its support for a “ministerial exception” in July 2020 with a 7-2 decision in another case involving the dismissal of teachers, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. The ERLC signed memoranda in favor of a “ministerial exception” in both cases.

While the Seventh Circuit panel ruled that these Supreme Court rulings did not apply in Demkovich’s case, the full court concluded otherwise.

Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote in the majority opinion that the rationale for the Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe decisions “does not end” with charges of discrimination in dismissal. “A religious organization’s protected interest in its ministers covers the entire employment relationship,” including supervision, as well as hiring and firing, he wrote.

Although religious groups do not enjoy “general immunity” from civil laws, “procedural and practical problems abound. [under either of the First Amendment’s religion clauses] by probing the working environment of a minister, ”Brennan wrote.

These clauses prohibit a law “concerning the establishment of a cult or prohibiting the free exercise” of worship.

In its opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court cited the memorial signed by the ERLC, as the Supreme Court did in the Our Lady of Guadalupe decision with the memorial filed by the commission in this case.

Demkovich was hired in 2012 as the music director of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a Catholic church in Calumet City, Ill., And was fired in 2014. Demkovich, who had a same-sex relationship for more than a decade, was overweight and had diabetes and an array of physical conditions known as metabolic syndrome. He alleged that Jacek Dada, the church’s pastor and Demkovich’s supervisor, “discriminated against him mainly on the basis of his sexual orientation and physical condition”, according to the opinion.

When Demkovich married his longtime partner, Dada demanded the resignation of the music director because the union violated Catholic doctrine. When he refused to resign, the supervisor fired him.

In their brief to the Seventh Circuit Court, the ERLC and the other signatories argued that the opinion of its three-judge panel offered a “narrow conception of the ministerial exception” that the Supreme Court “expressly rejected”.

The High Court doctrine expressed in the previous two opinions applies to some employees “because their work involves exemplifying their faith and performing basic religious duties,” according to the memorandum approved by the ERLC. “A judicial review of the working relationship between a religious group and its ministers inevitably invites unconstitutional interference with the self-government of religious groups, regardless of the type of job application involved. “

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