US Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Church’s Rights in Employment Issues

US Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Church’s Rights in Employment Issues

Religious liberty advocates are celebrating a July 9 federal appeals court decision that upholds the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to hire and fire its employees without government interference.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago, ruled 7-3 that an Illinois Catholic church and archdiocese legally fired its music director because he violated the denomination’s teachings when he married his longtime same-sex partner.

In 2016, Sandor Demkovich filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Chicago and the St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, alleging workplace harassment and unlawful firing in 2014 for marrying a man.

Demkovich, who is clinically overweight and suffers from diabetes and other health issues related to metabolic syndrome, also accused the parish of creating a hostile work environment based on disability.

Previously, a district court judge ruled against his sexual orientation claim but allowed his disability claim to move forward. In August of last year, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled in favor of Demkovich for both the disability and sexual orientation claims.

The full appeals court decision overturns the 2-1 ruling last August by the Seventh Circuit panel that agreed the music director had been wrongly terminated by the Catholic church.

In the federal appeals court’s July reversal, Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, a Trump appointee, concluded in the majority opinion that the “ministerial exception” for religious employers applies to “hostile work environment claims based on minister-to-minister harassment.”

“The contours of the ministerial relationship are best left to a religious organization, not a court,” Brennan wrote. “Within a religious organization, workplace conflict among ministers takes on a constitutionally protected character.

“Just as a religious organization need not proffer a religious justification for termination claims, a religious organization need not do so for hostile work environment claims.”

Brennan asserted that the court weighing in on the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims would be problematic since “what one minister says in supervision of another could constitute stern counsel to some or tread into bigotry to others.”

“How is a court to determine discipline from discrimination? Or advice from animus?” Brennan queried. “These questions and others like them cannot be answered without infringing upon a religious organization’s rights.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in October 2020, with other faith-based organizations, requesting that the entire Seventh Circuit Court rehear the case. The brief asserted that the three-judge panel’s decision “mandates extraordinary secular interference with core ecclesiastical judgments.”

“Church affairs are no place for secular governing authorities to exert influence,” Chelsea Sobolik, a policy director for the ERLC, told Baptist Press in a written statement. “The brief we filed in this case strongly asserted this principle, and we are pleased the Seventh Circuit agreed with our perspective.

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

In its opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court cited the brief signed onto by the ERLC, as the Supreme Court had done similarly in the Our Lady of Guadalupe decision with another brief filed by the ERLC in that 2020 case.

Then the high court reiterated its support for a “ministerial exception” in July 2020 with a 7-2 decision involving the firing of teachers in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

While the Seventh Circuit panel ruled those Supreme Court decisions did not apply in Demkovich’s case, the full court of appeals found otherwise.

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, a religious freedom legal nonprofit that joined the litigation on behalf of the Archdiocese, applauded the ruling. 

“Worship is sacred,” Blomberg said in a statement. “That’s why worship leaders who select and perform elements of worship are ministers of the faith, conveying its teachings to the faithful. 

“That’s also why the church—not the state—gets to make sure that its music ministers are directing its congregation in a way that’s faithful to its beliefs.”

Circuit Judge David Hamilton, an Obama appointee, authored a dissenting opinion, contending that the majority had focused “too little on counterarguments” and reached a decision “at the expense of the rights of employees.”

Photo: Radharc Images/Alamy Stock Photo

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