The court sides with the church and the archdiocese in the lawsuits brought by the music director


WASHINGTON (CNS) – A federal appeals court on July 9 dismissed a lawsuit brought against a Catholic parish in Chicago and the Archdiocese of Chicago by a former parish music director.

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 7-3 en banc, or full court, decision said the plaintiff’s complaint against St. Andrew the Apostle Parish fell within the ministerial exemption that protects organizations religious groups against prosecution for discrimination by parish employees.

Former employee Sandor Demkovich claimed in his 2016 trial that his parish priest subjected him to a hostile work environment due to his disability, including metabolic syndrome – a group of conditions that increase the risk of disease heart disease, stroke and diabetes. He also said he was harassed and fired because of his same-sex marriage.

A district judge dismissed the same-sex marriage discrimination claim on the basis that the church had a religious basis for its decision, but he allowed the disability claim to go ahead. Then last year, a 7th Circuit panel upheld Demkovich’s disability claim and also revived the gay marriage discrimination complaint, prompting the church and archdiocese to seek review by the full panel of 11 judges.

The court agreed, with a judge’s challenge, and heard arguments in the case in February.

In its July decision, overturning its previous decision to relaunch the discrimination complaint, the court stressed that a ministerial exception protects the entire ministerial relationship and not just when an employee is hired or fired.

Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, writing for the majority, said the ruling was based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the ministerial exception last year when it ruled that Catholic school teachers who also taught religion could not sue for wrongful dismissal.

Brennan wrote that “religion permeates the ministerial workplace in a way that it does not in other workplaces” and added that “the contours of the ministerial relationship are best left to a religious organization. , not in court “.

The dissent, authored by Circuit Judge David Hamilton, stressed that ministerial exceptions should be assessed on a case-by-case basis instead of following an overarching standard that applies “regardless of seriousness, pervasiveness or hostility. work environment, whether the hostility is motivated by race, gender, national origin, disability or age, and whether or not the hostility is related to religious faith and practice .

He also said the majority opinion in the ruling focused “too much on religious freedom and too little on counter-arguments and other interests” and ended up displacing the law “beyond the necessary protection of religious freedom “. He wrote that he offered religious institutions “a constitutional shelter from generally applicable laws to the detriment of employee rights.”

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, the religious freedom law firm, which was one of the firms representing the Archdiocese of Chicago in the case, said the ruling adhered to key First Amendment principles in interactions between church and state.

He also said it reminded the courts below: “We cannot lose sight of the harms – civil intrusion and excessive entanglement – that the ministerial exception? stop. “

“Worship is sacred. This is why the cult leaders who select and perform worship items are ministers of the faith, imparting its teachings to the faithful, ”he said.

“This is also why the church – and not the state – must ensure that its music ministers lead its congregation in a way that is true to its beliefs,” he added.

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