Court Barred from Settling Sexual Harassment Claim

First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

Update. The decision made in this case from 2019 was affirmed by Seventh Circuit in 2021, ending the plaintiff’s legal challenge.

Key point 8-10.01. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

Key point 8-12.05. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if the employer adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by nonsupervisory employees, and even nonemployees.

A federal appeals court ruled that the ministerial exception barred a church organist’s sexual harassment claim against his employing church for its creation of an offensive working environment through unwelcome verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

An adult male (the “plaintiff”) served for two years as “Music Director, Choir Director and Organist” for the Archdiocese of Chicago and a local parish (the “church defendants”). His immediate supervisor was the parish priest. The priest knew that the plaintiff was gay and that he was engaged to another man. During the plaintiff’s two years of employment, the priest allegedly made remarks critical of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation.

In 2013, the priest asked the plaintiff when he planned to marry his partner, and the plaintiff responded that the wedding would be sometime in 2014. The plaintiff claimed that the abusive and harassing behavior became increasingly hostile as the wedding date approached. The marriage took place in September 2014. Four days after the wedding, the priest asked the plaintiff to resign because of the marriage. When the plaintiff refused to resign, the priest fired him and said, “Your union is against the teachings of the Catholic church.”

The plaintiff sued the priest, church, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, alleging employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and marital status in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On the disability discrimination claim, the plaintiff alleged that he was frequently harassed because of his diabetes and a metabolic syndrome. For example, the plaintiff alleged that the priest repeatedly complained about the cost of keeping the plaintiff on the parish’s health and dental insurance plans because of his weight and diabetes.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the discrimination and wrongful-termination claims were barred by the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” which generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy. The plaintiff appealed, modifying his claims to challenge the “hostile work environment” rather than the firing itself.

The appeals court’s ruling

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating against any employee or applicant “with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s sex.” Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The courts have identified two types of sexual harassment—”quid pro quo” and hostile environment. “Quid pro quo” harassment refers to conditioning employment opportunities on submission to a sexual or social relationship, while “hostile environment” harassment refers to the creation of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment through unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. In general, an employer is liable for a supervisory employee’s hostile environment sexual harassment.

In this case, the court noted, the plaintiff conceded that he was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, but claimed that the church defendants had nonetheless violated Title VII by creating a “hostile environment.” The question before the court was whether the ministerial exception applied to sexual harassment claims based on a hostile environment. The court noted that only a few courts have addressed whether hostile work environment claims brought by a minister are barred by the ministerial exception, and the courts have reached opposite conclusions. The court concluded:

[The plaintiff’s] hostile-environment claims based on his sex, sexual orientation, and marital status pose [a risk] of impermissible entanglement with religion. First, his status as a minister weighs in favor of more protection of the church defendants under the First Amendment. Remember that the church defendants have absolute say in who will be its ministers. The Archdiocese might very well assert that it has a heightened interest in opposing same-sex marriage amongst those who fulfill ministerial roles. Either the Court would have to accept that proposition as true (thus intensifying the intrusion in regulating how the opposition is conveyed to the Church’s ministers) or the parties would have to engage in intrusive discovery on the sincerity of that belief. Indeed, even if the proposition would be accepted as true, the Church itself would have a litigation interest in proving to the jury why there is a heightened interest in opposing same-sex marriage amongst its ministers. That would put the Church in a position of having to affirmatively introduce evidence of its religious justification, so the litigation’s intrusion would not be just a matter of responding to the plaintiff’s discovery requests. The Church might even wish to offer the views of its congregants on this issue, especially if the plaintiff offered evidence from congregants that they would not be offended by a gay music director.

But the appeals court allowed the disability discrimination claim to proceed:

Here, the Archdiocese offers no religious explanation for the alleged disability discrimination. The Archdiocese justifies the comments as “reflecting the pastor’s subjective views and evaluation of plaintiff’s fitness for his position as a minister. But this is not a religious justification based on any Church doctrine or belief, . . . at least as proffered so far by the defense. So the disability claim does not pose the same dangers to religious entanglement as the sexual orientation and marital-status claims. Nothing in discovery should impose on religious doctrine on this claim. Rather, the inquiry will make secular judgments on the nature and severity of the harassment (and whether it even happened), as well as what, if anything, the Archdiocese did to prevent or correct it. The [First Amendment] does not bar the plaintiff from pursuing the hostile-environment claims based on disability.

What this means for churches

This case is helpful because it provides a broad interpretation of the ministerial exception, extending it not only to discrimination claims by dismissed ministers claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation, but also to “hostile environment” sexual harassment claims, whether or not a minister is dismissed. Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168584 (N.D. Ill. 2018).

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