Cook County Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

Appellate court: Judges shouldn't gainsay Catholic church on whether organist a 'minister,' exempt from discrimination suit


By D.M. Herra | Aug 14, 2019

The St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Catholic Church in Chicago | Wikimedia Commons

A federal appeals panel says a Chicago Catholic church was within its constitutional rights to fire its organist without being subject to a discrimination lawsuit.

The three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that a church can claim the ministerial exception to protect it from a discrimination lawsuit brought by a fired organist.

Stanislaw Sterlinski was hired by St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Catholic Church in Chicago in 1992 to serve as the parish music director. His duties included choosing the music to be played at Mass, teaching music classes, budgeting and leading the church choir. 

Barry Gomberg | Barry A. Gomberg & Associates

In 2014, the parish priest, the Rev. Anthony Dziorek, demoted him to a part-time job as church organist. In 2016, Sterlinski was fired. In his complaint against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, Sterlinski, who was 68 at the time of his demotion, alleged discrimination based on his age and Polish heritage.

A federal court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception barred his claims. Sterlinski amended the complaint to focus on how the demotion affected his duties as music director, essentially claiming that while a music director might be considered a minister, an organist was not.

“As organist, Sterlinski says, he was just ‘robotically playing the music that he was given’ and could not be treated as a minister,” Judge Frank H. Easterbrook wrote in the appellate court opinion. “The Bishop’s argument, which the district judge accepted, is that music is vitally important to the services of the Roman Catholic Church. … This persuaded the district judge that an organist is, if not as important to services as a priest or cantor, a part of religious exercise.”

Sterlinski stressed that he was not ordained and, Easterbrook wrote, wanted the court “to decide for ourselves whether an organist’s role is sufficiently like that of a priest to be called part of the ministry.”

In its opinion, the appellate court declined to take on that challenge. Rules of precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC exist specifically to prevent the judiciary from becoming entangled in religious matters, Easterbrook wrote.

“If the Roman Catholic Church believes that organ music is vital to its religious services, and that to advance its faith it needs the ability select organists, who are we as judges to disagree?” he said. “Only by subjecting religious doctrine to discovery and, if necessary, jury trial, could the judiciary reject a church’s characterization of its own theology and internal organization.”

The key, Easterbrook wrote, is to determine whether the church’s justification is pretextual or honest. A church claiming school bus drivers are ministers for the sake of the ministerial exception is a pretext, he said; claiming musicians who perform during religious services is reasonable.

“Sterlinski does not contend that the Bishop’s justification for calling him a ‘minister’ is pretextual,” the judge wrote. “[He] does contend that his playing was ‘robotic’ and therefore cannot have entailed the exercise of religiously salient discretion as the selection of music might have done. But a church may decide that any organist who plays like a robot ought to be fired.”

The court decided that because organists serve a religious function at St. Stanislaus, the ministerial exception applies. Judges Diane S. Sykes and Michael B. Brennan concurred with the opinion.

Sterlinski has beenrepresented in the case by attorney Barry A. Gomberg, of Barry A. Gomberg & Associates Ltd., of Chicago.

The Catholic Bishop of Chicago has been represented by attorneys Alexander D. Marks and James C. Geoly, of the firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C., of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Barry A. Gomberg Burke Warren McKay & Serritella The Catholic Bishop of Chicago U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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