Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 reported on the lawsuit of a church worker fired over his same-gender marriage that was reinstated on the grounds of a hostile work environment. Today’s post features a recent commentary by theologian Patrick Hornbeck.
Hornbeck, a professor at Fordham University and law student at the same school, wrote about the case of Sandor Demkovich in the National Catholic Reporter. Demkovich’s discrimination lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Chicago was previously dismissed, as the courts found the archdiocese was protected by the ministerial exception. But the suit has been reinstated in amended form (for the full details, click here).
Noting the high number of church workers who have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes, Hornbeck observes that the Demkovich case is significant because the amended lawsuit primarily concerns damages over a hostile work environment he was subjected to, not his termination. The harassment involves not only the fact that Demkovich is gay and in a same-gender marriage, but is related to medical conditions which might be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The theologian continues:
“The archdiocese’s lawyer sought to persuade the judges of the Seventh Circuit that even the pastor’s humiliating comments about Demkovich’s personal appearance are protected under what’s known as the ministerial exception. . .
“The archdiocese’s argument against Demkovich is that when his pastor ridiculed him for being gay and overweight, Demkovich’s supervisor was simply exercising his constitutional right to discipline an employee. What the pastor said and did may have been objectionable, but a court simply cannot look into the matter.
“Pressed by one judge, the archdiocese’s attorney admitted that his argument would make the church immune from suit even if a senior minister repeatedly hurled the N-word at a subordinate and even if there was no conceivable religious or theological grounds for doing so. ‘It would be odious, and nobody would endorse that,’ James Geoly said. ‘But the question is, should the court be in the position of choosing which words the superior minister used to admonish the inferior minister?'”
The suit is now before a federal appeals court, and it involves issues on which the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled. Hornbeck argues beyond just legal matters, noting a moral component to this lawsuit:
“But beyond the law, the archdiocese’s argument simply cannot be right as a matter of Catholic teaching and basic humanity. Not content with the right to hire, discipline and fire key employees on theological grounds, the archdiocese and religious institutions like it are asking judges to avert their eyes entirely where the treatment of some employees is concerned.
“If imago Dei and the intrinsic dignity of the human person mean anything, those ‘modes of acting’ simply cannot include harassment and name-calling.”
Hornbeck calls for “a wise balance” in adjudicating religious liberty cases, like these church worker disputes. The courts should ask “only whether an institution has a sincere theological basis for the decision being challenged” when it comes to personnel decisions by religious institutions. And yet, Hornbeck argues:
“But where those actions are not grounded in the institution’s teachings, as with the brutal shaming Demkovich reported, it would be treated just the same as any other employer.
“Whatever the legal rule, just because courts may afford Catholic employers the right to act freely against some of their employees does not mean that the church ought to avail itself of that prerogative. To do so communicates terrible messages: that church employment is only for the perfect; that the church’s moral understanding has no room for development; and that the church values doctrinal purity and the prerogatives of hierarchical authority over human respect and mutual encounter.”
Church leaders taking such a stand “reeks of hypocrisy,” Hornbeck states, and would further erode the church’s already-fading credibility. To read his full analysis, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 19, 2021