“Ministerial Exception” Bars Catholic Music Director’s Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims

Lev Craig

On September 29, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed all claims in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, finding that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” precluded a gay music director at a Catholic church from bringing wrongful termination claims after he was fired just days after marrying his male partner.

In 2012, St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago hired Sandor Demkovich as music director, choir director, and organist, where he was responsible for selecting and performing music played during mass at St. Andrew. Reverend Jacek Dada, the pastor at St. Andrew, knew that Demkovich was gay and engaged to a man. But shortly before Demkovich married his now-husband in September 2014, Demkovich’s coworkers told him that Reverend Dada intended to ask him to resign after the wedding and had already started telling St. Andrew employees that Demkovich had been fired.

Sure enough, four days after Demkovich and his husband were married,Reverend Dada called Demkovich into his office and asked him to resign. After Demkovich refused to resign, Reverend Dada fired him, telling him that his union went “against the teachings of the Catholic church.” Demkovich then brought suit in federal court, alleging sex and sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

St. Andrew and the Archdiocese successfully moved to dismiss Demkovich’s complaint, arguing that his claims were precluded by the so-called “ministerial exception” of the First Amendment. This exception, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, prevents courts from applying employment discrimination laws like Title VII “to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.”

Though various circuit courts have recognized the ministerial exception since shortly after the passage of Title VII in the 1960s, the Supreme Court did not address the issue until its 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case involving a Lutheran minister’s wrongful termination claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There, the Court found that allowing the minister to proceed with her ADA claims would violate the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, as “[r]equiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister […] interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

The Demkovich court began by noting that the ministerial exception is “actually an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar or a reason for dismissing a claim for failure to state a claim.” While the applicability of the exception would therefore normally be resolved after fact discovery, the court found that here, the complaint on its face set forth everything necessary to satisfy the ministerial exception.

Because Demkovich himself described his job responsibilities as “select[ing] music played during masses at St. Andrew,” the court determined that he “helped to ‘convey the Church’s message’ through the important religious function of worship music” and thus qualified as a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception. As a result, the court found that Demkovich was barred from bringing his discrimination claims against St. Andrew, characterizing enforcing employment discrimination laws as an infringement upon the church’s exclusive “authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful.”

LGBT employees in New York are protected by state and city anti-discrimination laws. If your employer has discriminated against you because of your sexual orientation, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.