Thursday, July 22, 2021

Seventh Circuit Expands “Ministerial Exception” to Hostile Work Environment Claims, Deepening Circuit Split

On July 9, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, and The Archdiocese of Chicago, an employment discrimination case that arose when a Catholic church terminated a music director following several years of alleged harassment by the parish’s pastor. The music director, a gay man who struggles with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, claimed that he was subjected to frequent insults and hostility from the pastor and was ultimately terminated after marrying his partner.

In his first complaint, the music director claimed that the church and Archdiocese unlawfully discharged him under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district court dismissed the case because the defendants successfully raised the ministerial exception, which shields religious organizations from government interference with their ability to select and control their ministers and protects them from certain employment lawsuits. The music director amended his complaint to describe a hostile work environment--rather than unlawful termination--based on his sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and disability. The district court dismissed all but the disability claim, holding that the parish’s religious justifications for the pastor’s alleged discriminatory comments, based on the music director’s sexuality, warranted protecting the church from judicial interference.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s finding that the disability-based claim could survive the ministerial exception. The majority of the Court held that allowing the music director’s claim to proceed “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.” This case is the first in which the Seventh Circuit has expanded the ministerial exception to cases involving hostile work environment and harassment claims. The Court found that the protections of the First Amendment must prevail over the prohibition of discrimination found in Title VII and the ADA.

In the dissent, three judges opined that the majority had failed to recognize the nuances of the music director’s claims and had too quickly concluded that hostile work environment claims are categorically barred when brought in the context of ministerial employment. The dissent advocated for the approach taken by the Ninth Circuit, which includes a careful balancing test to discern which cases are fit for applying the ministerial exception and which may proceed through litigation. The split between Circuit Courts across the country on the application of the ministerial exception may necessitate clarification from the Supreme Court on this issue in coming terms.