Theologian: Archdiocese Defending Harassment Against Gay Worker “Reeks of Hypocrisy”

Patrick Hornbeck

YesterdayBondings 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

3 replies
  1. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Some in the Catholic hierarchy already have supported 14 year jail terms for being gay (Uganda), and have encouraged parents to turn in their gay children to the government for this punishment “to save their souls.” Using LGBTQ people as scapegoats and as a way to wield power is a grave evil. The church itself has linked human dignity and work. So denying beloved LGBTQ employees their livelihoods is already afoul of stated church teaching. I think Coney Barrett has already ruled on a case where an employer who called an employee the n-word did not create a hostile working environment. So with the courts stacked in favor of discrimination on “religious grounds,” and impunity for the evil Catholic leaders who perpetuate this abuse, the power grab is in full force. I admire the attempt to retain some “humanity” as the church goes on its merry way, scapegoating, maligning, and firing LGBTQ employees. But LGBTQ people “get it” and have “gotten it” forever: they are considered by the church to be INTRINSICALLY DISORDERED, and as such have no right to dignity, a life with a loving partner, a family, or even the expectation of civil treatment. Shame on the church. Shame, shame, shame.

  2. Sarasi
    Sarasi says:

    Re: Smith vs. Illinois Department of Transportation–this was a circuit court opinion from 2019, when Barrett sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit:
    “In her opinion, Barrett called the [N-word] comment an ‘egregious racial epithet’ but dismissed Smith’s claim, saying that his relationship with supervisors at the department had long been problematic and that this single incident in which Colbert referred to Smith by using the racial slur wasn’t enough to constitute a hostile work environment in the context of the other issues …”

    Not sure I agree with the justice that one epithet, such as “f*g wedding,” used by Demkovich’s priest-boss, the c-word for women, or the N-word, doesn’t immediately taint the work environment going forward. I believe it does, and that anyone who has experienced sex or racial discrimination understands it does, but Coney-Barrett seems blissfully removed from this possibility. She doesn’t understand that it’s not a “quantity” issue; it’s a what-they-really-think-of-you issue. Imagine how helpful she’ll be when her adopted kids of colour run into this stuff at school or work.

  3. Richard Cook
    Richard Cook says:

    In 1990, the Holy See ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to protect children from harm and to put children’s interests above all else. But the Vatican did not provide regular implimentation progress reports and only submitted one in 2012 after criticism following the explosion of child sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond. The U.N. had to be pressured by victim groups and human rights organizations before a UN committee challenged the Holy See to document details of its efforts to protect children from sexual abuse. Even so, the UN Committee is empowered only to make findings and issue non-binding recommendations. The Committee amounts to a shaming mechanism – that doesn’t work.

    Nevertheless, the victim groups and human rights advocates cited case studies, grand jury investigations, and government fact-finding inquiries across the globe that detailed the Vatican’s policies. These submissions targeted a culture of secrecy and a desire to avoid or downplay incidents of abuse so as to avoid public attention to child abuse within the Church.

    Submissions from these child-advocate organizations revealed that church authorities at the Vatican (1) knew about a notorious Mexican molester decades before taking action (2) praised a French Bishop’s decision to protect his abusive priest (3) directed Irish bishops to strike from their policies any mandatory reporting of abusers to police (4) asserted that bishops should NOT be expected to turn their priests over to civil authorities following allegations of abusing children.

    As a sovereign state, the Holy See has little to fear from the nonbinding recommendations of a U.N. committee and has argued before the committee (1) as a sovereign state the Holy See cannot be made subject to lawsuits (2) bishops – not the Pope – are responsible for pedophile priests and besides (3) the Holy See is responsible for implementing the U.N. treaty only where it exercises territorial control: the 44 hectares (110 acres) of the Vatican City State where at most only a few dozen children actually live. The Vatican is saying: it’s not who protect victim of priest-pedophiles across the globe, its the bishops.

    Ok. When the bishop declares, through the arguments of lawyers, that verbal abuse, humiliation, ridicule and termination of employment are appropriate behaviors directed against church employees, that love-forsaking bishop has signaled his own disqualification, through legal brief rather than homily. The faithful should ask that he be retired. The faithful should keep asking until he is retired.


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