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Seventh Circuit Rules Religious Employers Still Subject to Hostile Work Environment Claims

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that religious employers may make employment decisions for “ministerial employees” that would otherwise violate the anti-discrimination laws. Ministerial employees are generally defined as those employees who perform any type of religious function.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized a limit to the broad protection afforded religious institutions, finding that religious employers are not wholly protected from hostile work environment claims. Sandor Demkovich was a music director for St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a Catholic church. He alleged that he was subjected to hostile comments and epithets based on his sexual orientation, weight, and medical issues. He sued under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both parties agreed that Demkovich’s role would fall within the definition of a ministerial employee.

In the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, the court noted that religious entities are not exempt from all legal claims, including tort and breach of contract claims. The ministerial exception applies to “tangible employment actions” under Title VII; these religious employers are allowed to choose and control their ministerial employees without judicial review or government interference. However, in this case, Demkovich did not allege he was subjected to any tangible employment actions such as hiring, firing, promoting, or compensation. He alleged that the hostile work environment created by the comments was so severe that he was unable to perform his job. The appellate court concluded that the church’s harassment of this individual was unrelated to its ability to make employment decisions. The appellate court provided examples of other unrelated conduct that would not be permitted such as allowing nooses on the desk of a Black minister or making sexual comments to a female employee. The Seventh Circuit’s decision creates a further split among the circuits.