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‘Ministers’ Shielded From Harassment Claims, 7th Cir. Says (1)

July 9, 2021, 8:07 PMUpdated: July 9, 2021, 10:23 PM

A divided Seventh Circuit broadened a religious employer defense to encompass hostile work environment claims brought by employees who qualify as “ministers,” deepening a circuit split that eventually could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 7-3 ruling Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned a three-judge panel’s August 2020 decision that revived harassment claims brought by Sandor Demkovich, a gay music director who sued the Archdiocese of Chicago and the parish where he previously worked.

That prior panel ruling said while religious employers could raise the “ministerial exception” as a defense in discrimination cases involving the hiring and firing of workers who have enough faith-based duties to be considered ministers, they still must maintain a workplace free from harassment.

The full Seventh Circuit majority, however, said the ministerial exception also categorically bars hostile work environment claims, ordering the dismissal of Demkovich’s claims.

“Avoidance, rather than intervention, should be a court’s proper role when adjudicating disputes involving religious governance,” Judge Michael Brennan wrote in the majority opinion, citing Supreme Court precedent. “The ministerial exception follows naturally from the church autonomy doctrine.”

In his lawsuit, Demkovich alleged a hostile work environment based on his sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and disabilities. During his tenure, Demkovich said he was harassed by his supervisor for being gay and was repeatedly asked to resign. He says he was fired for refusing.

“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,” Brennan later added.

“This decision is grounded in a long line of cases going back decades that hold that the church-minister relationship is the lifeblood of the church,” said James C. Geoly, the general counsel for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “The government has no place in that relationship.”

The dissent characterized the majority’s decision as overreaching, arguing that it bars ministerial employees from bringing any harassment claims regardless of their severity or nature.

“The majority opinion decides a hard question but makes it look easy,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the dissent. “This bar will apply 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.”

Circuit Split

The decision adds to a growing split among federal circuit courts. While the Tenth Circuit holds that the ministerial exemption covers hostile work environment claims, the Ninth Circuit holds it does not.

That division meant that the court’s ruling is “disappointing, but not surprising,” said Demkovich’s attorney, Kristina B. Alkass of Lavelle Law.

She said the possibility of Demkovich seeking Supreme Court review is still being decided, but the circuit split means any decision short of the high court won’t be truly final.

“I would expect that we are more likely than not to do so,” she said. “We believe that until the issue of whether the ministerial exception should apply to intangible employment actions is decided at the SCOTUS level, we’ll keep seeing cases like this.”

The case is Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 7th Cir., No. 19-02142, 7/9/21.

(Updated with details from the court's majority and minority opinions and comment from the parties' attorneys.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Papscun in Washington at dpapscun@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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