Court Rules Against Fired Gay Church Musician’s Hostile Workplace Discrimination Suit

Sandor Demkovich (left) and Frank Hattula

A federal appeals court sided 7-3 with the Archdiocese of Chicago and St. Andrew’s Parish, arguing that former music director Sandor Demkovich’s hostile work environment lawsuit fell under the ministerial exception.

In his 2016 lawsuit, Demkovich claimed that his parish priest subjected him to a hostile work environment because of his disability, including diabetes and weight issues, as well as his same-gender marriage. While the same-gender marriage claim was dismissed on the grounds that the church had a religious basis for its decision, the disability claim was allowed to move forward last August. Crux provided a summary of the majority opinion and the dissent:

“Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, writing for the majority, said the decision was based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of ministerial exception last year when it ruled that Catholic school teachers who also taught religion could not sue for wrongful termination.

“Brennan wrote that ‘religion permeates the ministerial workplace in ways it does not in other workplaces’ and he added that ‘the contours of the ministerial relationship are best left to a religious organization, not a court.’

“The dissent, written by Circuit Judge David Hamilton, stressed that ministerial exceptions should be evaluated on case by case basis instead of following an overall standard that that applies ‘regardless of how severe, pervasive, or hostile the work environment is, regardless of whether the hostility is motivated by race, sex, national origin, disability, or age, and regardless of whether the hostility is tied to religious faith and practice.'”

This reversal will have implications for the legal interpretation of the ministerial exception. Bloomberg Law reported:

“That prior panel ruling said while religious employers could raise the ‘ministerial exception’ as a defense in discrimination cases involving the hiring and firing of workers who have enough faith-based duties to be considered ministers, they still must maintain a workplace free from harassment.

“The full Seventh Circuit majority, however, said the ministerial exception also categorically bars hostile work environment claims, ordering the dismissal of Demkovich’s claims.”

The ruling contributes to an ongoing conversation and growing split about the reach of the ministerial exception. While the Tenth Circuit holds that the ministerial exception does cover hostile work environment claims, the Ninth Circuit holds that it does not. For this reason, Demkovich’s attorney, Kristina B. Alkass of Lavelle Law, called the decision “disappointing, but not surprising.” On the possibility of Demkovich seeking U.S. Supreme Court review, Alkass continued:

“‘I would expect that we are more likely than not to do so. . .We believe that until the issue of whether the ministerial exception should apply to intangible employment actions is decided at the SCOTUS level, we’ll keep seeing cases like this.'”

While the recent ruling of the Seventh Circuit is a setback in Demkovich’s case, it appears that the battle may not be over. Demkovich’s case serves as a reminder of the intersectional discrimination that disabled LGBTQ Catholics experience in the workplace. We stand with Demkovich and others like him in their struggle for justice, as Catholic teaching emphasizes the worth of all workers, which includes the right to a dignified workplace.

To read more of Bonding 2.0’s coverage of this story, click here for the 2015 article detailing the initial situation, here for a comprehensive overview of the 2020 reinstatement, and here for theologian Patrick Hornbeck’s commentary on the archdiocese’s response to the reinstatement.

Barbara Anne Kozee, July 26, 2021

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