Ministerial Exception Does Not Bar Hostile Work Environment Claims

John Melcon

The Supreme Court recently re-affirmed the “ministerial exception” to claims under employment non-discrimination statutes. Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals limited the Supreme Court’s ruling.  The Seventh Circuit held, in a 2-1 decision, that the ministerial exception does not categorically bar hostile work environment claims.  Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, No. 19-2142 (7th Cir. Aug. 31, 2020)

The plaintiff was the music director at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, a Catholic church, and alleged that he was subjected to hostile comments and epithets regarding his sexual orientation, weight, and medical issues.  The circuit court noted that religious organizations are not exempt from all legal claims by ministerial employees, citing tort claims and breach of contract claims. The court further reasoned that religious organizations can select and control their ministers through tangible employment actions, without the need for harassing behavior. While hostile work environment claims might still entangle the court in ministerial issues, and in those cases, the exception might still apply, the risk of entanglement was not so great as to prohibit all hostile work environment claims by ministerial employees.

The decision deepens a circuit split on this issue, aligning the Seventh and Ninth Circuits against the Tenth Circuit.  At some point, this issue, too, is likely to be presented to the Supreme Court.