Music as ministry on trial
An appeals court weighs arguments over breadth of church autonomy
A church is in court over the right to hire and supervise its own music directors.
Sandor Demkovich, the former music director at the St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in the Chicago area, lost his job in 2014 after violating church teaching by entering into a same-sex marriage. He sued the church and the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“He who sings, prays twice—so whoever leads the singing is central to church worship,” Becket counsel Daniel Blomberg, who is defending the archdiocese, said Tuesday, alluding to a quote widely attributed to Augustine.
A federal district court in 2017 dismissed Demkovich’s employment discrimination claim. But in August, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, finding that religious freedom doesn’t bar hostile work environment claims. Then the full, 11-member court vacated that decision in December so it could take a fresh look on Tuesday.
The case hinges on the so-called “ministerial exception,” which says the First Amendment protects church doctrine and other internal matters from governmental interference. The Supreme Court in July’s Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru extended the exception to cover Catholic school teachers. But litigants continue to explore the doctrine’s reach. Another federal appeals court heard arguments in January about whether it allows evangelical Gordon College to deny full professorship to a faculty member who advocates pro-LGBT views and opposes the institutional standards on human sexuality.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the court seemed troubled by across-the-board application of the ministerial exception. The judges appeared to lean toward a narrower ruling in favor of churches where, as here, the employment decision was religiously motivated.
“We are not bound by the parties’ extreme positions,” said Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Reagan appointee. He wondered “whether it doesn’t make sense for us to craft a decision which turns on whether the church has a religious justification for what it does.”
Archdiocese attorney James Geoly pressed for broad protection for church employment decisions, pointing to Supreme Court precedents finding that “the very subject matter of the dispute is the reason that the court is unable to adjudicate the case, not whether the issue at issue is explicitly religious.”
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