Archdiocese of Chicago to court: Let parishes choose their staff

Credit: Natalia Bratslavsky

Washington D.C., Feb 10, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Attorneys for the Archdiocese of Chicago argued before the Seventh Circuit on Tuesday that parishes should be free to choose church leaders without government interference.

In the case of Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the former music director at St. Andrew’s sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for discrimination after his employment was terminated in 2014. The staffer, Sandor Demkovich, had entered into a same-sex marriage, which violates Church teaching.

Becket, a religious liberty law firm, is representing the archdiocese in court.

“He who sings, prays twice—so whoever leads the singing is central to church worship,” Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Allowing the government to entangle itself in the relationship between a church and its ministers runs headlong into the wall between church and state,” he said.

Demkovoch initially filed an employment discrimination lawsuit, which was rejected by a district court in 2017. Then he sued again, claiming that he was the victim of a hostile work environment, according to court documents.

Demokovich alleged that he was targeted for harassment because of his sexual orientation and medical issues. The work environment, he said, damaged his physical and mental health.

In August, Demkovich won his case against the archdiocese before a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The divided panel ruled that the parish couldn’t be immune from a hostile workplace lawsuit because of religious freedom claims.

However, the full court vacated that decision and reheard the case on Tuesday.

Becket argued that the prior ruling conflicts with the court’s previous decisions on religious freedom, as well as those of other federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court’s July, 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, the high court found that religious institutions are not subject to employment discrimination law when they hire or fire “ministers” of religion.

“Courts nationwide have consistently ruled that the government doesn’t get to inject itself into the church-minister relationship,” Blomberg added. “Churches, not judges or government officials, should control who stands at the pulpit or in front of the choir.”

Becket has argued that previous court decisions have ignored the application of the ministerial exception to the case.

Demkovich, they argue, served at St. Andrew’s since 2012 in a religious capacity, helping plan the liturgies and providing musical accompaniment. Thus, he was a “minister” of religion, and was subject to faith-based workplace standards–such as staffers being expected to uphold Church teaching in their lives.

The divided panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled in August that the ministerial exception cannot extend “to categorically bar all hostile environment discrimination claims by ministerial employees.”

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