Appeals court says all hostile workplace claims by ministers are barred by ministerial exception

by | Jul 14, 2021

The prohibition on discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t just apply to hiring and firing; it also protects against “hostile” work environments. But, what if your work environment is a house of worship and you are a minister? That is the question recently addressed by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by music minister Sandor Demkovich against his Roman Catholic parish in Calumet City, Illinois.

Demkovich was the music minister, choir director and organist at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. He brought claims under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying that during his employment he was subject to repeated derogatory and humiliating comments related to his sexual orientation and weight issues by his supervisor, who was the church’s pastor.

Demkovich was ultimately fired for marrying his same-sex partner. His claims for wrongful termination were dismissed on the basis of the “ministerial exception,” which protects the hiring and firing decisions of religious institutions against claims of discrimination brought by employees with a ministerial role as a means of preserving religious freedom and avoiding state entanglement in ministerial decisions.

A district court and later a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception does not categorically bar all workplace harassment claims brought by ministerial employees, allowing Demokovich’s claim to go forward. The entire appeals court, however, voted to re-hear the case and reversed that decision in a 7-3 opinion. The majority explained:

The contours of the ministerial relationship are best left to a religious organization, not a court. Within a religious organization, workplace conflict among ministers takes on a constitutionally protected character. To render a legal judgment about Demkovich’s work environment is to render a religious judgment about how ministers interact. . . . Deciding where a minister’s supervisory power over another minister ends and where employment discrimination law begins is not a line to be drawn in litigation, the point of the ministerial exception.


Precluding hostile work environment claims arising from minister-on-minister harassment also fits within the doctrinal framework of the ministerial exception. A religious organization’s supervision of its ministers is as much a “component” of its autonomy as “is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.” It would be incongruous if the independence of religious organizations mattered only at the beginning (hiring) and the end (firing) of the ministerial relationship, and not in between (work environment).

The dissent agrees that the case raises important religious liberty questions, but it argues that a categorial bar on hostile workplace claims tilts the balance too sharply in the direction of religious liberty at the expense of the rights of employees. In this case, the dissent argues it is not necessary to intrude on religious matters to inquire into Demkovich’s claim. Here is an excerpt:

The majority tells us…that hostile environment claims by ministerial employees threaten religious liberty because they will cast a shadow over a supervisory minister’s “counseling” of a wayward subordinate. . . . The suggestion that federal courts cannot tell the difference between pastoral counseling, even with “tough love” or “stern counseling” as the majority puts it, and torrents of the most vile and abusive epithets aimed at race, sex, sexual orientation, and disability does not give sufficient credit to the federal courts. Courts have been protecting religious liberty for generations by policing lines far more subtle than the one that worries defendants and the majority in this case.

The question of whether the ministerial exception applies to hostile environment claims has been answered differently by different circuits, a split that could eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. SCOTUS most recently addressed the ministerial exception last year in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, a case asking who qualifies as a “minister.”