St. Andrew the Apostle Church is a Roman Catholic Church that serves the largely Polish community of Calumet City, Illinois. Among the church’s many ministries is an outreach to LGBTQ Catholics seeking to learn and grow more in their faith. The church hired Sandor Demkovich as its music director, where he was responsible for leading the parishioners in worship: he selected the music for Masses, played the organ, and led the church in hymns. When he then married his same-sex partner, St. Andrews parted ways with him for violating Catholic doctrine. After he was fired, he brought a suit against the parish, arguing that criticism of his gay lifestyle created a hostile work environment.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that churches and other religious organizations must have near total autonomy “to choose those who will guide [them] on [their] way.” This is frequently referred to as the “ministerial exception” and has been unanimously recognized by the Supreme Court. This means that churches are largely exempt from employment discrimination laws when a person has an important role in the spiritual life of the organization. Demkovich did not deny that he had an important role in St. Andrew’s spiritual life, but instead argued that churches’ authority over their spiritual leaders only pertain to hiring and firing and do not extend to working conditions that include criticism of his lifestyle as a violation of church doctrine. A divided panel of the Seventh Circuit held that Demkovich could proceed on a hostile work environment claim, determining that the church’s only protected remedy for Demkovich’s violations of church doctrine was termination.
Christian Legal Society, working with Professor Tom Berg, led a coalition of religious organizations of numerous faiths who submitted an amicus brief to the Seventh Circuit, urging that court to rehear the case en banc. The brief explained the history of the ministerial exception and its importance to the life of religious organizations. CLS and its allies argued that the ministerial exception necessarily applies to issues of church discipline, not merely to hiring and firing decisions. The Seventh Circuit’s ruling would give a church the severe choice of having to look past a minister’s transgressions or to separate with him or her completely.
On December 9, 2020, the Seventh Circuit granted the request for rehearing en banc. The full court heard oral argument in February 2021. On July 9, 2021, the Seventh Circuit ruled 7-3 to reverse its earlier ruling and to allow religious organizations the freedom to both choose and supervise their religious leaders. By doing so, the Seventh Circuit found that the ministerial exception acted as a per se bar to the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims. Demkovich chose not to seek review by the United States Supreme Court, thereby ending the case in favor of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish.
What principle is the Center fighting for? Churches have well-recognized authority over their spiritual leaders. This authority should include discretion to discipline and correct their ministers, and not merely to fire them.