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Illinois Federal Court Allows Discharged Gay Organist to Pursue ADA Hostile Environment Claim against Archdiocese of Chicago

Posted on: October 2nd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang ruled on September 30 that Sandor Demokovich, a church organist and choir director who was fired from his position at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, after marrying his same-sex partner, may pursue a hostile environment disability harassment claim against his former employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168584 (N.D. Ill.).  In previous motion practice, Judge Chang found that Title VII and state and local antidiscrimination claims against the defendants for discriminatory discharge because of his sexual orientation and marital status are barred by the “ministerial exception” recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  In this ruling, he found that claims of hostile environment harassment because of the plaintiff’s sex, sexual orientation and marital status are also barred, due to Free Exercise and Establishment Clause concerns.

Demkovich began working as Music Director, Choir Director and Organist at St. Andrew in September 2012, and was fired in September 2014. His immediate supervisor, Reverend Jacek Dada, St. Andrew’s pastor, knew that Demkovich was gay and that he was engaged to another man, and, according to Demkovich’s allegations, subjected him to abusive and harassing behavior, which built to a crescendo as the date of Demkovich’s impending wedding approached.  Witnesses averred that Dada told them he would fire Demkovich if Demkovich married, and he was true to his word.  In addition, Demkovich, who had an obvious weight problem traceable to his struggles with diabetes, also suffered under Dada’s unwelcome comments about his weight and medical condition.  “Reverend Dada made harassing remarks about Demkovich’s weight, often urging him to walk Dada’s dog to lose weight, and telling Demkovich that he needed to lose weight because Dada did not want to preach at his funeral,” wrote Chang, summarizing the allegations in the complaint.  “Dada also repeatedly complained about the cost of keeping Demkovich on the parish’s health and dental insurance plans because of his weight and diabetes.  In 2012, when Demkovich declined a dinner invitation from Dada because he did not have his insulin with him, Dada asked if Demkovich was diabetic and told him that he needed to ‘get his weight under control’ to help eliminate his need for insulin.”

Being an organist and choir director seems to be a profession that attracts gay men, to judge by the number of cases we have seen over the years, including some of the earliest sexual orientation discrimination cases. Lawsuits challenging dismissals of gay church organists and choir directors almost invariably founder on the courts’ solicitude for defenses based on the First Amendment protection of the decisions by churches about whom to employ in positions directly implicated in carrying out their religious mission, and there is little disagreement among those judges who have faced the question that a church organist and choir director plays a ministerial role in the life of a church.  As to that, Judge Chang found that Demkovich’s concession that his is a “minister” for this purpose precludes his pursuit of wrongful discharge discrimination claims, whether premised on Title VII and the ADA or similar state or local laws, based on the Supreme Court’s determination that the government should never be involved in telling a church whom to employ as a minister.

However, Chang found, the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor case was a discharge case, and can be read to be limited to discrimination claims with respect to tangible employment issues, such as hiring, promotion, assignments, compensation. The Court spoke in that case about the right of a church to decide whom to employ as its minister, but not necessarily how that individual would be treated based on characteristics other than their religion, as to which Title VII provides for an express exception allowing religious institution employers to establish religious criteria for employment.  On the other hand, he found, one must resort to circuit court precedent to determine whether the ministerial exemption should also bar hostile environment harassment claims by a ministerial employee against a religious employer.  Since these claims involve “intangible” harms, he concluded that it was possible that the ministerial exception does not apply to them.  Instead, on a case-by-case basis, the court would have to determine whether allowing a hostile environment claim to go forward would raise significant 1st Amendment free exercise or establishment concerns.

As to this, he concluded, given the Catholic Church’s well-known public opposition to same-sex marriage, alleging a hostile environment based mainly on adverse comments by a supervisor about an employee’s proposed same-sex marriage would intrude unduly into the 1st Amendment rights of the church, thus ruling out that claim as well. “Although the ministerial exception does not bar Demkovich’s hostile-environment claims (to repeat, he does not challenge a tangible employment action), the Court concludes that litigation over Reverend Dada’s alleged harassment based on Demkovich’s sex, sexual orientation, and marital status would excessively entangle the government in religion.”  He noted that defendants offered a “religious justification for the alleged derogatory remarks and other harassment: they ‘reflect the pastor’s opposition, in accord with Catholic doctrine, to same sex marriage,’” he wrote.

“Whether Catholicism in fact dictates opposition to same-sex marriage is not subject to court scrutiny,” wrote the judge, quoting 7th Circuit authority to the effect that “once the court has satisfied itself that the authorized religious body has resolve dthe issue, the court may not question the resolution.”  Furthermore, he observed, the Church’s “official opposition to gay marriage is commonly known (nor does Demkovich question it), and there is no reason to question the sincerity of the Archdiocese’s belief that the opposition is dictated by Church doctrine.”  Also, Demkovich’s ministerial role “weighs in favor of more protection of the Church under the First Amendment,” he continued, noting that “the church has absolute say in who will be its ministers.”  Chang pointed out several different ways in which allowing this hostile environment claim to proceed would raise Establishment Clause as well as Free Exercise Clause problems.

On the other hand, found Chang, there seemed no salient 1st Amendment concern in allowing Demkovich to pursue a hostile environment disability claim under the ADA, assuming that hostile environment claims are actionable under that statute – an issue not yet addressed by the Supreme Court.  Although the Church’s ministerial exemption bars suing it about a decision concerning whom to employ as a minister, wrote Chang, it was hard to discern a First Amendment right of the Church that would be abridged by questioning the disability-related hostile treatment of a minister whom the Church was willing to employee.

He wrote, “The Court first notes that the Seventh Circuit has not yet expressly decided that the ADA ever permits a hostile work environment claim. Instead, the Seventh Circuit has assumed – in both published and unpublished decisions – that there is such a claim under the ADA.  In light of the similarity between Title VII and the ADA in protection against discriminatory workplace conditions, this Court too assumes that the ADA does provide for hostile work environment claims.  When analyzing hostile work environment claims under the ADA, the Seventh Circuit has ‘assumed that the standards for proving such a claim would mirror those established for claims of hostile work environment under Title VII.”

Significantly, he noted, the Archdiocese “offers no religious explanation for the alleged disability discrimination. The Archdiocese justifies [Rev. Dada]’s comments as ‘reflecting the pastor’s subjective views and/or evaluation of Plaintiff’s fitness for his position as a minister.’  But this is not a religious justification based on any Church doctrine or belief, at least as proffered so far by the defense.  So the disability claim does not pose the same dangers to religious entanglement as the sex, sexual orientation, and marital-status claims.  Nothing in discovery should impose on religious doctrine on this claim.  Rather, the inquiry will make secular judgments on the nature and severity of the harassment (and whether it even happened), as well as what, if anything, the Archdiocese did to prevent or correct it.  The Religious Clauses do not bar Demkovich from pursuing the hostile-environment claims based on disability.”

The Archdiocese had also argued that “the alleged conduct was not severe or pervasive, was not physically threatening, and is not alleged to have altered the terms and conditions of Plaintiff’s employment,” but Chang noted that “this case is at the pleading stage, so Demkovich need not plead more facts than necessary to give the Archdiocese ‘fair notice of his claims and the grounds upon which those claims rest, and the details in his Amended Complaint present a story that holds together.’”  Judge Chang found that the allegations thus far were sufficient to place a hostile environment claim in issue for purposes of defeating a motion to dismiss.

Thus, the bottom line is that defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted as to the hostile environment claims based on sex, sexual orientation, and marital status, but denied as to the claims based on disability.”

Demkovich is represented by Kristina Buchthal Regal of Lavelle Law, Ltd., Palatine, IL.