Ministerial waiver applies to hostile work claims, says split 7th Circuit

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REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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  • En banc court rejects 'minister-on-minister harassment' claims
  • Decision deepens circuit split over scope of ministerial exception

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court has dismissed a hostile work environment lawsuit by a gay former music director of a Chicago church, finding it was barred by a religious exception to employment law.

In a 7-3 en banc ruling on Friday, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that plaintiff Sandor Demkovich's claim against St. Andrew the Apostle Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago fell under the so-called ministerial exception, which shields religious organizations from discrimination lawsuits brought by their ministers.

The ruling deepens a circuit split on whether the exception covers hostile work environment claims, joining the 10th Circuit in holding that it does while the 9th Circuit has held it does not.

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"We're very pleased with the outcome in the case," said James Geoly, general counsel for the Archdiocese.

Demkovich's lawyer, David Franklin of Massey & Gail, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his 2016 lawsuit, Demkovich claimed that the priest at his church subjected him to a hostile work environment based on disability, including metabolic syndrome, and that he was harassed and fired because he entered into a same-sex marriage, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A district judge dismissed the sexual orientation claim on the grounds that it had a religious basis, but allowed the disability claim to go forward. A 7th Circuit panel last year upheld the disability claim and revived the sexual orientation claim, and the church sought en banc review.

Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, writing for the majority on Friday, said the ministerial exception barred all of Demkovich's claims, because it gave religious organizations an absolute right to decide what ministers they employ.

"Adjudicating Demkovich's allegations of minister-on-minister harassment would not only undercut a religious organization's constitutionally protected relationship with its ministers, but also cause civil intrusion into, and excessive entanglement with, the religious sphere," he wrote.

Brennan noted that the Supreme Court last year upheld a broad application of the exception when it ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that Catholic school teachers whose duties included religious instruction could not sue for wrongful termination.

"It would be incongruous if the independence of religious organizations mattered only at the beginning (hiring) and the end (firing) of the ministerial relationship, and not in between (work environment)," Brennan wrote.

Circuit Judge David Hamilton dissented, joined by Circuit Judges Ilana Rovner and Diane Wood. He said that the ministerial exception should be evaluated case by case, rather than creating an absolute bar that applies "regardless of how severe, pervasive, or hostile the work environment is, regardless of whether the hostility is motivated by race, sex, national origin, disability, or age, and regardless of whether the hostility is tied to religious faith and practice."

Hamilton noted that religious organizations are still subject to ordinary torts and criminal laws, and argued that the majority's conclusion drew an "oddly arbitrary line" for hostile work environment claims.

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

For Demkovich: David Franklin of Massey & Gail

For St. Andrew: James Geoly of the Archdiocese of Chicago

Read more:

7th Circuit judges seek middle ground on religious exemption to bias claims

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.