Can an employee sue his church employer after his supervisor, a priest, created a hostile work environment claim because of the employee’s sexual orientation once the priest learned of the employee’s plans to marry his long-term partner?

Yes, yes it can, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Demkovich v. St. Andrew The Apostle Parish, No. 19-2142 (7th Cir. 2020), decided on August 31, 2020.

The facts are simple. The church hired Mr. Demkovich, who had been living with his boyfriend for more than ten years, in 2012 to be its musical director. No one complained about his performance, but in 2014, he told his supervisor that marriage equality in Illinois enabled he and his boyfriend to get married.

Cue wedding bells.

Mr. Demkovich’s supervisor, a member of the clergy, asked him not to go through with the wedding. Mr. Demkovich refused, and as the day of the wedding drew closer, the good father subjected him to a hostile work environment, incessantly bullying and denigrating Mr. Demkovich because of his sexual orientation and weight (yes, he fat-shamed this employee).

The church fired the employee, and he sued.

Sounds straightforward, right? It is not.

While Title VII Bars Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation, the Ministerial Exception Precludes Certain Claims

In Illinois since 2014 based on state law, and across the country since June 2020 under federal law, an employer who fires or takes any adverse action against an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In a landmark decision, which I told you about here, the Supreme Court of the United States (affectionately, “SCOTUS”) determined that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex— now including sexual orientation and transgender status—even if that was only part of the reason for an adverse action. SCOTUS stated:

The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.

(bold supplied). Discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or transgender status IS discrimination based on sex. Period.

But What About That Ministerial Exception ?

Maybe a better question is “what is a ministerial exception?” I’ll explain and try not to get too deep into the legal weeds.

Title VII bars claims filed by employees who serve in clergy-based roles for a religious employer. It is a First Amendment principle that governmental regulation of church administration, like hiring, impedes the free exercise of religion and inappropriately mixes church and state.

Indeed, SCOTUS has defined a “ministerial exception” to the anti-discrimination laws as a concept that protects religious organizations from being sued about their decisions to hire or terminate employees who can be described as “ministers,” a category broad enough to include a music director responsible for liturgical hymns used in services.

The exception applies only to employees who perform essentially religious functions, namely, those whose primary duties consist of engaging in church governance, supervising a religious order, or conducting religious ritual, worship, or instruction.

Ministerial exception seminar over.

What Did The Court Say?

In the opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court acknowledged the ministerial exception — that a religious organization’s free exercise of religion must include freedom in hiring decisions—and determined that holding a church liable for subjecting its employees to a hostile work environment so severe that it adversely impacted an employee’s ability to do his job has absolutely nothing to do with the church’s hiring decisions.

Thus, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, SCOTUS would not permit churches to mistreat employees in a way that would violate the law if done in a non-religious workplace, even if sincerely held religious beliefs motivated the misconduct.

In other words, subjecting an employee to years of nastiness and taunting because of his sexual orientation is unlawful no matter if the employer can otherwise claim the ministerial exception as a defense to a hostile work environment.

Employer Takeaway

The ruling creates an interesting dichotomy—an employee can sue a religious employer for fostering and not condemning a hostile work environment but not for wrongful termination.

All employers should remember that permitting a hostile work environment to cultivate unchecked is likely to lead to a lawsuit. And that ministerial exception? Yeah, it won’t save a religion-based employer from liability for tolerating one as reprehensible as the one created by Mr. Demkovich’s supervisor.

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