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7th Circuit Rules that Gay Worker Can Sue the Catholic Church

September 4th, 2020 Victoria Breese

A former music director at a Catholic Church in Chicago claimed that his supervisor harassed him because he is gay and overweight. The music director then sued the Catholic Church for employment discrimination claims. The Seventh Circuit ruled that the Church is not immune from all cases of employment discrimination even though it is a religious institution. 

What the Ministerial Exception means for the Catholic Church

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that religious employers like the Catholic Church are immune from employment discrimination claims under the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception covers employees who are considered “ministers” of a certain religion (such as those who teach or lead members in the faith). The Supreme Court explained that this exception exists in order to prevent the government from becoming too entangled with a certain religion and maintain the separation of church and state. However, according to the 7th Circuit Court, the ministerial exception may not bar religious employers from all employment discrimination claims.

How the 7th Circuit Interpreted the Ministerial Exception

The 7th Circuit conceded that the ministerial exception protects religious employers from employment discrimination claims regarding hiring and firing. For example, the Catholic Church could legally have fired a ministerial employee for not being Catholic even though non-religious employers generally cannot commit religious discrimination. However, the 7th Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception does not apply to hostile work environment claims. Under this interpretation, the former music director could sue the Catholic Church because he was harassed for his sexual orientation and weight. The 7th Circuit’s decision deepened a split with the 10th Circuit. In Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, the 10th Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception bars hostile work environment claims against religious employers. With a deepening Circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court may seek to resolve this issue during its next term. 

What the Law Says About Hostile Work Environments

Employees can bring hostile work environment claims against employers covered by discrimination laws. Discrimination in the form of harassment is prohibited under several federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. State and city laws, such as the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law also prohibit hostile work environments. The law usually doesn’t prevent offhand offensive jokes or inappropriate comments. However, if the harassment in your workplace is severe enough that a reasonable person would consider it a hostile work environment, you may have a legal claim and should speak to an experienced employment attorney.

Seek Legal Assistance Today

If you have experienced a hostile work environment, seek legal assistance today. The Working Solutions Law Firm, located in New York City, can assist you. Contact us today at (646) 430-7930 to schedule a free case evaluation and receive experienced legal counsel.