Seventh Circuit Review


As a rule, the government cannot dictate to a church or religious institution which employees it can hire or fire. This principle, grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, is the basis of an exception to employment suits entitled the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception is a judicially created doctrine that insulates religious institutions from employment suits based on wrongful termination against them by their own ministers. However, the Supreme Court left open the question of whether the ministerial exception applies to other types of employment action claims, such as hostile work environment claims. The Seventh Circuit took up this question in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City. Mr. Demkovich, a gay man, was hired to be the church organist and choir director. Up to and immediately after his wedding to his husband, Mr. Demkovich was subjected to pervasive harassment at the Parish by Reverend Dada, his superior. He was fired soon after his wedding. Because of the Supreme Court’s broad definition of “minister” as was defined in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Beru, Demkovich was considered a minister for the purposes of the ministerial exception. The Seventh Circuit, after protracted litigation, ultimately held that the ministerial exception is a categorical bar, and not merely cause for analysis, for hostile work environment claims brought by ministers against religious institutions. Therefore, both his wrongful termination and hostile work environment claims were dismissed. This Comment explores the ministerial exception in the context of the Seventh Circuit’s categorical bar on hostile work environment claims. Religious liberty is, of course, of paramount importance to the freedom of every American, religious or not. At the same time, Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act also serve important governmental interests by protecting employees from invidious harassment at their place of work. The character of hostile work environment claims is significantly different from the hiring and firing purpose that the ministerial exception was designed to address. Oftentimes, employment claims are the only claims that employees can bring. By deciding that the ministerial exception is a categorical bar to hostile work environment claims, rather than merely a consideration in a case-by-case analysis, incorrectly balances the religious liberty interest against invidious discrimination because, as the District Court noted, many cases that touch upon religion, but do not put religion at issue. Hostile work environment claims do not necessarily pose the threats that the Seventh Circuit sitting en banc used to justify its categorical bar. A case-by-case analysis that is sensitive to religion, as the District Court applied, better balances the interests of workers and religious institutions.

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