A former longtime music director for a Chicago Catholic church, who alleged he was demoted and fired for being ethnic Polish and a senior citizen, might be able to sue for discrimination after reworking his complaint to prevent the church from exercising its ministerial exception rights.

Stanislaw Sterlinski, hired in July 1992 as music director of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish, filed a complaint against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago in 2016, alleging a pastor first demoted him based on his age and Polish heritage, and then the Bishop fired him for complaining about the demotion. But in August, a federal court in Chicago dismissed the complaint without prejudice on grounds the First Amendment’s ministerial exception barred his claims.

Following that, Sterlinski amended his complaint to assert the same claims, but now focus on how the demotion affected his duties as music director. The Bishop moved for dismissal on the same ministerial exception grounds as before.

In an opinion issued May 1, federal judge Edmond E. Chang partially granted the bishop’s motion, but also ordered limited discovery on whether Sterlinski could indeed be considered a minister at the time of his firing, when he was no longer performing the duties of music director.

As music director, Sterlinksi’s duties included choosing liturgical music, teaching music classes at Polish School, budgeting, attending Archdiocesan Music Committee activities and leading choir practice. He also had to maintain his own music skills.

The June 2014 demotion, when Sterlinski was 68, removed all of his duties except for playing the organ, and changed his status from full- to part-time with no benefits. According to Chang’s opinion, the Bishop said the demotion was based on a budget deficit. However, Chang noted Sterlinski said church records showed an $82,000 profit on Nov. 2, 2014, compared to $60,000 a year earlier. Further, Sterlinski said the pastor who demoted him made comments about him “getting old” and not being “Roman.”

Chang explained the background of the ministerial exception, citing the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, in which a unanimous court said the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious practice limit the reach of federal and state discrimination laws, leaving churches and other religious organizations free to choose their own “religious leaders,” using beliefs and teachings as criteria — and expanding the definition of minister beyond “the head of a religious congregation.”

Chang noted, however, a court can determine which employees qualify for the exception by considering job duties, and whether they “reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission;” “the formal title … the substance reflected in that title;” whether the plaintiff held himself out as a minister; and whether the plaintiff performed “important religious functions … for the Church.”

Chang agreed with the Bishop that Sterlinski qualified as a minister in his role as music director — negating his claims of discriminatory demotion — but said further discovery is needed to determine if his role as an organist between his demotion and termination are so qualified.

The Bishop cited a 2006 Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, in which a ministerial exception barred an organist’s complaint. However, Chang noted that particular plaintiff also held the title of music director, “especially the duty to choose music for religious services.”

Chang specified discovery, limited to the applicability of the exception, is needed to determine Sterlinski’s actual post-demotion duties.

“It is possible, for example, that the Catholic Bishop could offer evidence proving that there really is no such thing as robotically performing music such that there is no religious aspect to the musician’s performance,” Chang wrote. “For his part, Sterlinski might try to rebut that evidence with his own expertise, or offer evidence from an expert. Either way, the Court encourages the parties to think about what is necessary to litigate the ministerial exception fully, so that there need not be a second round of discovery on it later.”

Sterlinski is represented in the action by attorney Barry A. Gomberg, of Chicago.

The Catholic Bishop is represented by attorneys with the firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C., of Chicago.

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Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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