Cook County Record

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Church's fired gay music director tries harassment claim to negate church's 'ministerial exception' defense

By Dan Churney | Jan 16, 2018


A man who lost his federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Chicago, which claimed the church wrongly fired him from his music director job at a suburban church for marrying another man, is back in court for another try, arguing the church's ministerial exception defense doesn't apply, because the harassment he allegedly suffered was not ecclesiastical in nature.

Sandor Demkovich was organist and director of music from 2012 to 2014 at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Calumet City. The church's pastor, Rev. Jacek Dada, fired Demkovich several days after Demkovich entered into marriage with another man. Demkovich then sued the church and the Chicago Archdiocese in 2016, claiming employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, marital status and disability.

The disability claim referred to Demkovich's impaired health, and Dada's alleged complaints about the expense of insuring him.

On Sept. 29, 2017, U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang dismissed the suit, declaring the church was protected by ministerial exception, which gives wide latitude to religious institutions in their handling of their affairs. The exception is intended to prevent state interference with religion, and is “grounded in the First Amendment's religion clauses,” Chang noted.

Chang concluded that although Demkovich is not a minister as such, the role of music director falls under the general category of minister.

Demkovich, who lives in Whiting, Ind., then amended his suit and tried to make an end-run around ministerial exception by arguing Dada and certain other church staff members created a “hostile work environment” that is not covered by the exception. A “hostile work environment” claim does not “implicate protected employment decisions,” according to Demkovich.

“The First Amendment 'does not immunize the church from all temporal claims made against it,'” Demkovich further said, quoting a 1990 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Demkovich's attorney elaborated that when Demkovich, defined by the judge as a minister, is the target of alleged harassment by another minister (Dada) the defendant minister cannot hide behind ministerial exception. The discrimination allegedly inflicted on Demkovich does not “touch upon ecclesiastical matters” and has no “religious justification,” in Demkovich's view.

Demkovich alleged Dada produced a poisonous work environment by allegedly calling Demkovich and his partner “bitches” and describing their marriage ceremony as a “fag wedding,” among other acts of alleged impropriety. Dada further harassed other church staff members and parishioners about the upcoming union, Demkovich alleged.

In Demkovich's first version of his suit, he said Dada was initially fine with the pending marriage and said he wished to attend the ceremony, before eventually firing him because of the marriage.

Demkovich added that Dada belittled him about his weight and diabetic condition, although other staff members were also overweight and had similar health problems, but were not also badgered.

For added measure, Demkovich alleged church staffers regularly slurred women, blacks and Hispanics.

In the church's response to the amended suit, the church said it's worried that acceptance of the toxic environment claim would allow unwarranted judicial scrutiny of church internal affairs.

Demkovich countered the “ability to harass and abuse” ministerial staff does not bear on the church's right to govern itself.

Demkovich wants reinstatement, back pay, front pay, benefits, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as reimbursement of legal costs.

Demkovich has been represented by Lavelle Law of Palatine.

The Archdiocese has been defended by the Chicago firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella.

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Organizations in this Story

Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C.U.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisLavelle LawRoman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago