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Courts to Revisit Church Exemption to Bias Law

Full 7th Circ. To Eye Scope Of Church Exemption To Bias Law

By Vin Gurrieri

Originally Posted on Law360, December 9, 2020


A Roman Catholic church persuaded the Seventh Circuit on Wednesday to revisit a divided panel decision that said a carveout to federal workplace bias law for religious employers didn't preclude a lawsuit from a former music director who claimed he was harassed for being gay and overweight. In a short order, the Seventh Circuit vacated a late August decision in which a split three-judge panel held that the exemption doesn't categorically block ministerial employees from pursuing suits under a hostile work environment legal theory. The panel held that church music director Sandor Demkovich thus could sue his former employer and the Chicago archdiocese for allegedly fostering a hostile work environment. The archdiocese and St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Calumet City, Illinois, asked the court to rehear the case en banc in an Oct. 5 court filing, arguing that the panel decision "effectively overrules" a 2003 circuit decision, Alicea–Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. That ruling held that all of a plaintiff's employment discrimination claims, including those alleging a hostile work environment, are barred under the ministerial exception. The appeals court said in Wednesday's order that it will soon issue a separate order to set a date for a fresh round of oral arguments. The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine that shields religious employers from anti-discrimination laws. It was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2012 decision called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC in which the justices laid out a loose framework for applying it. The high court refined that legal framework in a decision it issued earlier this year, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which it endorsed a broad view of the exception's application. The Chicago archdiocese argued in its petition for en banc review that the August decision also "directly conflicts" with the legal markers laid down by the Supreme Court in both Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Moreover, the archdiocese argued that the panel's effective scrapping of Alicea-Hernandez would deepen an existing split among five circuit courts over whether the ministerial exception extends to hostile work environment claims.

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