Hostile Work Environment Claims Not Barred By Ministerial Exemption

On August 31st, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled  a minister’s hostile work environment discrimination claim is not barred by Title VII’s ministerial exemption.  The court’s 2-1 decision in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish joined the Ninth Circuit in finding that a hostile work environment is not a permissible means of exerting constitutionally protected control over a ministerial employee. 

In 2012, St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a Catholic Church, hired Sandor Demkovich as the musical director. Demkovich was gay and had been with his partner for over ten years.  Also, he was overweight and suffered from diabetes. Demkovich’s supervisor was Reverend Jacek Dada.  Demkovich alleged that Reverend Dada subjected him to comments and epithets regarding his sexual orientation, and the harassment increased when Dada learned that Demkovich was going to marry his partner.  In 2014, after Demkovich married his partner, Dada demanded Demkovich resign because his marriage violated the Church’s teachings.  Demkovich refused to leave, so Dada fired him.

Demkovich sued St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago for hostile work environment claims under Title VII (sexual orientation) and the ADA (diabetes).  The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Title VII claim but allowed the ADA claim to proceed.  The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The majority opinion identified two competing interests in a hostile work environment claim involving a religious organization: freedom of religion and the employee’s rights to be free from “invidious discrimination.” The court stated, “[t]he right balance is to bar claims by ministerial employees challenging tangible employment actions but to allow hostile environment claims that do not challenge tangible employment actions.” 

The court ultimately ruled that the First Amendment does not protect religious organizations from a ministerial employee’s hostile work environment claim.  The ministerial exemption permits religious organizations  to exert control over employees and accomplish the mission of the organization without judicial review or government interference.  But, religious organizations are not immune from civil suit.  The court reasoned that hostile work environment claims are essentially tortious, and the behavior that creates a hostile environment is not essential for the management, supervision, and control of employees. 

Following Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedent, the court concluded that a hostile environment claim concerns behavior by supervisors and/or coworkers that are outside of the scope of employment and the protection of the ministerial exemption.  Accordingly, supervisors in religious organizations do not have a constitutionally protected right to abuse employees when their actions are motivated by their personal religious beliefs.  Further, “the risk of procedural entanglement in hostile work environment cases is modest because religious organizations do not have a generalized claim of immunity from litigation or regulation.” Courts can address these claims on a case by case basis, and therefore a categorical bar to such claims is not appropriate.

The case was remanded to the district court with the Title VII claim resurrected and ADA claim intact.

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