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Church Culture

Court Rules Church Can Hire—Or In This Case, Fire—Staff Without Government Intrusion

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled in favor of a Catholic church that was sued by a former employee, saying churches and religious groups have the right to hire and supervise staff according to their beliefs without government intrusion.

“Civil authorities have no say over matters of religious governance…This invitation to turn the spiritual into the secular raises the concern of chilling religious-based speech in the religious workplace,” the court’s ruling said, noting “The hostile environment claims before us present a conflict between two of the highest values in our society and legal system: religious liberty and non-discrimination in employment.” 

St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Calumet City, Illinois, is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a case filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois in 2017, Sandor Demkovich, a former music director at St. Andrew’s, sued the church after he was terminated for having a same-sex personal relationship. 

Demkovich was hired in 2012 as the church’s music director, choir director, and organist, serving until he was fired in September 2014. 

Demkovich alleged in the suit that Rev. Jacek Dada, a Catholic priest and the church’s pastor, discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation by asking for the music director’s resignation after Demkovich married his partner in September 2014. 

Dada had told Demkovich he needed to resign because gay marriage was against the teachings of the church, and fired him when he refused.  

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In his initial complaint, Demkovich claimed the church violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state and county laws when it fired him based on his sexual orientation.

The church raised a “ministerial exception” in defense, grounded in the free speech of the First Amendment. The district court granted the church’s motion, dismissing the complaint. 

However, in an amended complaint, Demkovich said he had also faced a hostile work environment because Rev. Dada had made derogatory comments not only about his sexual orientation, but also about his appearance. Demkovich claimed disability because a metabolic condition caused him to be overweight. 

A three-judge panel ruled against the Archdiocese, but the Seventh Circuit reversed the ruling, saying the ministerial exception still applied.

“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? These questions and others like them cannot be answered without infringing upon a religious organization’s rights,” the opinion stated.

The court said that allowing hostile work environment claims in a church environment “intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.” 

“The work environment of a minister thus differs from the work environment of any other employee,” it said. “Religion permeates the ministerial workplace in ways it does not in other workplaces. Ministers, by their religious position and responsibilities, produce their employment environment. From giving a rabbinic sermon on a Jewish holy day to leading a mosque in a call to prayer, ministers imbue a religious organization with spirituality.” 

Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.