Appeals Court Reinstates Fired LGBTQ Church Worker’s Discrimination Lawsuit

Sandor Demkovich (left) and Frank Hattula

An appeals court has reinstated a previously dismissed discrimination lawsuit brought against the Archdiocese of Chicago by an LGBTQ employee fired for marrying his same-gender partner.

Sandor Demkovich sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for discrimination after he says he was fired from his job as music director at St. Andrew the Apostle, Calumet City, over his refusal to resign due to marrying his husband, Frank Hattula.

Attorneys for Demkovich refiled the discrimination suit as a hostile work environment case and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed this hostile work environment case to move forward in August, reported WGN 9. In its decision, the 7th Circuit ruled “while the First Amendment essentially gives religious organizations the freedom to hire and fire who they please, those same organizations must maintain a workplace free from harassment.”

At issue in Demkovich’s reinstated case are the limits of the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine that allows religious institutions to be exempt from non-discrimination laws in hiring and firing employees they define as ministers. Though U.S. courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have interpreted the ministerial exception to be wide-reaching, Demkovich joins a number of LGBTQ church employees arguing that the exception does not allow for continued harassment and discrimination while actively employed.

Fr. Jacek Dada, pastor of St. Andrew’s, had originally been supportive of Demkovich and Hattula’s marriage, even privately sharing that he would like to attend the wedding. After the two were married, Dada apparently took issue with the publicity of the wedding, reported the Chicago TribuneThe priest told a choir member that Demkovich and Hattula’s ‘union’ was against church teaching and that he thought the couple “were going to keep this quiet and not make it public.”

In addition, Demkovich alleged that he was harassed about his weight and diabetes, saying it created a hostile and intimidating work environment.

Bondings 2.0 previously reported in 2015 that Demokovich sought mediation with the Archdiocese through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Illinois Department of Human Rights to keep his job.

After failing to retain his job, Demkovich sued both the parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago. That lawsuit was previously dismissed under the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

In 2019, Noel Koenke, a former campus minister at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, sued the Jesuit university for sexual harassment in part due to her marriage to her same-gender partner. Koenke’s attorney is arguing her case similarly to Demkovich. A religious institution has the right to not hire an LGBTQ employee or fire an LGBTQ employee based on the ministerial exception, but they do not have the right to choose to hire an LGBTQ employee and subject that person to constant harassment based on their sexuality.

This reinstatement of Demkovich’s suit is encouraging for cases making this argument.

Beyond the legal merits of such a discrimination suit, the church stands poised continue to invest its time, energy, and money defending its right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The moral questions of whether or not sexual harassment is ever justified or whether or not LGBTQ employment discrimination is just seems to be the more serious question for the church. Rather than continuing to argue for their right to cause economic, psychological, spiritual, and emotional pain in the lives of LGBTQ church workers, the Archdiocese of Chicago should apologize for having fired Demkovich in the first place, offer to make amends with him, and resolve not to target LGBTQ employees for harassment and discrimination in the future. In this way, they will maintain the moral credibility we so desperately need from our Catholic leaders in this tumultuous moment of history.

Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, October 6, 2020

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