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Seventh Circuit Reverses Itself on Ministerial Exception to Title VII

In September 2020, three Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judges held that Title VII’s prohibitions against a hostile work environment applied to religious employers. In July 2021, the full Seventh Circuit court, sitting en banc, reviewed that decision and reversed it. The full court determined that the First Amendment protects religious employers from Title VII’s application.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a ministerial exception to Title VII, precluding the government from interfering in employment disputes between religious employers and their employees. In the two seminal cases on this issue, the employees challenged their terminations. The Supreme Court has yet to address whether employment disputes involving harassment and/or a hostile work environment are similarly included within the ministerial exception.

Sandor Demkovich sued the St. Andrew the Apostle Parish following his termination as the church’s music director, choir director, and organist. He filed a complaint, asserting his supervisor subjected him to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. He alleged the church discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation and his health problems which caused weight issues. In the en banc decision, the Seventh Circuit held the ministerial exception applied to both tangible and intangible employment actions, such as hostile work environment claims. The court found Demkovich’s duties to be primarily liturgical in nature, thus placing his job squarely within the ministerial exception. The court concluded that assessing Demkovich’s claims required “impermissible intrusion into, and excessive entanglement with, the religious sphere.” According to the court, the First Amendment protects a religious institution's relationship with its ministers from hiring to firing and everything in between. This decision aligns with precedent from the Tenth Circuit but diverges from the Ninth Circuit.