Archdiocese: 7th Circuit should decide if fired gay ex-church music director can sue for hostile work environment

By D.M. Herra | Apr 1, 2019

Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City   Youtube screenshot

The Chicago Archdiocese is asking a federal judge for permission to take straight to a federal appeals court the question of whether a Calumet City church music director, who has accused the local Catholic Church of firing him for being gay, can sidestep the legal latitude afforded churches under the Constitution by repackaging his lawsuit to instead argue the church subjected him to a hostile work environment.

St. Andrew the Apostle Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago filed a motion March 22, asking U.S. DIstrict Judge Edmond Chang to certify a so-called interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

In the lawsuit, former choir and music director Sandor Demkovich claims he was fired because of his sexual orientation, as well as weight and health problems.

Specifically, Demkovich claims he was fired shortly after marrying his gay partner, and his original complaint alleged the church violated federal laws by discriminating against him because of his sexual orientation. The complaint was dismissed based upon the so-called "ministerial exception" – as the church’s music director, the court said, he was a minister under the legal definition and therefore the church had the right to fire him on religious grounds.

Demkovich reframed his complaint as a hostile work environment claim based upon his sexual orientation and his diagnosis of diabetes. The church moved to dismiss the claim under ministerial exception once again, but Judge Chang allowed the hostile work environment claim based on disability to stand. The claim based on sexual orientation was dismissed.

“At the pleading stage, Demkovich’s allegations about the harassment [he suffered based on his weight and health] are sufficient to state a hostile-environment claim,” Judge Edmond Chang wrote in his opinion allowing the claim to move forward.

The church filed a motion to reconsider and a request that the court certify its interlocutory appeal - essentially, the chance to ask an appeals court to rule on a question of law, rather than the judge's ruling directly. The question before the court for certification asks “whether a minister’s hostile work environment discrimination claim, arising out of federal employment statutes, is barred as a matter of law by the ministerial exception.” 

If the Seventh Circuit should rule the claim is barred, it would bring the litigation, now in its second year, to an end, as the other claims have already been dismissed.

In their motion to certify, the church claims all four criteria required for interlocutory certification are present: the question is a matter of pure law; it is a controlling question of law that can be decided without reviewing the record of the specific case; it is contestable, as different Illinois circuits have come to different answers; and the question has the potential to speed up the litigation if it is answered in the defendants’ favor.

The church’s legal counsel claims the defendants did not want to file the appeal until the court ruled on its motion to reconsider. The judge denied motions to reconsider on March 25, clearing the stage for the consideration of the church's motion for interlocutory appeal certification. 

The church and archdiocese are represented by Alexander Marks and James Geoly of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella PC, of Chicago.

Demkovich is represented by Lavelle Law of Palatine.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Case No. 16-CV-11576.

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

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