Archdiocese Contests Reinstatement of Fired Gay Church Worker’s Discrimination Lawsuit

Sandor Demkovich (left) and Frank Hattula

[Editor’s note: The following post contains an anti-gay slur that some readers may find offensive.]

The Archdiocese of Chicago has contested the reinstatement of an amended discrimination suit brought against them by a gay church worker who was fired for marrying his same-gender spouse, even though a lower court ruled in the archdiocese’s favor on the employment issue that was originally in the suit.

According to Courthouse News Service, the archdiocese argued before a 10-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, contesting an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang that permitted an amended medical disability complaint to proceed. The complaint was brought by Sandor Demkovich, who was fired from his music director position at St. Andrew the Apostle, Calumet City, because he refused to resign after marrying his spouse, Frank Hattula. 

Demkovich’s amended complaint alleges a hostile work environment created by racist and derogatory language used by St. Andrew’s pastor, Fr. Jacek Dada. In his revised lawsuit, Demkovich claimed that Dada used “racial and other slurs…at work referring to female, Black and Hispanic staff members and said the pastor called his own nuptials a ‘fag wedding.’” 

Demkovich, who is diabetic, also alleged that Dada demeaned Demkovich’s weight, telling him to “walk [his] dog for exercise because it was costing the church too much to cover his health insurance.”

Judge Chang had earlier dismissed the employment discrimination claim by supporting the archdiocese’s fundamental legal argument of the “ministerial exception”:

“‘As a matter of federal constitutional law – not state law – the archdiocese cannot be held liable for a firing in an employment discrimination case brought by their minister,’ Chang wrote, adding that Demkovich was responsible for the church’s message through its music.”

Established by a previous Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, the “ministerial exception” under the First Amendment empowers religious institutions to hire–and fire–employees who function as ministers, a category broadly defined for workers tasked with executing the church’s theological principles and mission.

Last summer in July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court further expanded the “ministerial exception” in the landmark combined case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.

Bondings 2.0 previously reported on Demkovich’s discrimination lawsuit against the the Archdiocese of Chicago in October 2020, as well as the increased vulnerability of LGBTQ church employees following the Supreme Court’s summer ruling in the aforementioned cases.

However, Judge Chang concluded that Demkovich’s amended medical complaint could proceed because his workplace harassment claim is not substantiated by religious principles, and therefore, the legal shield afforded by the “ministerial exception” does not apply. Chang articulated:

“‘The archdiocese offers no religious explanation for the alleged disability discrimination. The archdiocese justifies the comments as ‘reflect[ing] the pastor’s subjective views and/or evaluation of plaintiff’s fitness for his position as a minister.’ But this is not a religious justification based on any church doctrine or belief.'”

James C. Geoly, representing the archdiocese, disagreed with the judge’s ruling. He stated:

“‘Legally, pastors can say whatever they want to those who report to them in a ministerial position, Geoly argued, and “how a church chooses to admonish the minister is not up to the minister, it’s up to the church.”‘”

Judge Chang’s ruling that the “ministerial exception” of the First Amendment cannot be used to justify the creation of a hostile work environment based on religious principles is an important legal development.

But it is extremely disheartening to witness an attorney on behalf of the Archdiocese of Chicago proclaim that religious institutions and employers have an unfettered right to denigrate their employees based on theological doctrine. Fr. Dada’s fatphobic, homophobic, and ableist slurs towards Demkovich are morally reprehensible and have no basis in Catholic Social Teaching, which upholds the dignity of the human person, protection of workers’ rights, and charity to vulnerable populations within God’s creation.

Bondings 2.0 will feature further commentary on this case from theologian Patrick Hornbeck in tomorrow’s post.

In the last decade, more than 100 church workers have gone public about losing their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes. You can find a full listing of these incidents here, as well as New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBTQ issues here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.

Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, February 18, 2021

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