Federal employment law generally precludes termination or other adverse employment actions based on discrimination. It also provides a remedy in damages for hostile actions based on the same discrimination. However, applying these laws to the internal workings of churches not only implicates church management decisions, but even the way some denominations might interpret what constitutes discrimination. In some church traditions, otherwise lawful and protected sexual choice and conduct is both banned and declared to be sin. The degree of church discipline imposed to an outsider might appear to be a hostile work environment.
In Demkovich v St Andrew Parish, Slip Op. (7th Cir. 2021), the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit heard this case for a second time. In its 2020 opinion, a divided panel of the Court affirmed the district court’s decision to deny dismissal of the hostile work environment claim and reversed the dismissal of the sex discrimination claims. 973 F3d 718 (7th Cir. 2020). Hearing the case en banc, the 2020 opinion was vacated. Also, the United States Supreme Court extended its prior holdings barring federal employment law claims against churches by ministers. Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S.Ct. 2049, 2060 (2020) (“Under this rule, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”). The Plaintiff was the music director, choir director and organist. He was a gay man that announced his intent to “marry his partner while still employed by the church.” The Plaintiff alleged he suffered from diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and weight issues. The Plaintiff claimed that all of these events drew negative comments from the parish priest and ultimately employment termination. The 7th Circuit ordered the trial court to dismiss all claims.
Our original advice about the law in this area remains: church employers can generally avoid these issues by acting definitely in employment matters. Hand wringing, “tough love,” and long deliberations invite second-guessing or other allegations. Fat Shaming in the Cloister, September 5, 2020. Employees that violate the established moral precepts of the denomination or church generally cannot hold ministry positions.