Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Music as ministry on trial

Religious Liberty | An appeals court weighs arguments over breadth of church autonomy
by Steve West
Posted 2/15/21, 04:22 pm

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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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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Comments

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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 04:42 am

    Fascinating. Intriguing. Far reaching. 

  •  Marvin's picture
    Marvin
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 09:02 am

    My point is not just this article, but World Mag reporting in general.

    There has got to be better ways to report on judicial matters. In the fourth paragraph, there is so much overturning and vacating that I cannot understand where the issue stands. I have to assume it is bad for religious organizations or Mr. West would not be reporting on it. 

    Then, I find the final sentence to be totally opaque: “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.” I realize Mr. West did not write it. But he could explain it.

    This is not a criticism of Mr. West in paricular, but of World Mag in general. It would be good to try to translate legalese to us mere mortals when reporting on the whims of our judicial system. 

    Unless of course, the point is that legalese is pretty much untranslatable.

    I do understand that we must now be very wary in our churches and schools of the secular society forcing their slippery morals on them. Than you.

  • Kris
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 11:47 am

    From the article: 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.”  That says volumes. I turn to Justice Clarence Thomas who says in the recent movie on his life that judges desire to be legislators, who don't rule on the law, but want to carve the law for the "desired" results. The results may agree with my wishes, but the process is dangerous. The last sentence I interpret to mean that asking the court to decide on a religious practice is a question of religion, not law, and not subject to the court. The confusion is the result of many poorly decided cases where "strict scrutiny " fell under the onslaught of cultural shifts. 

  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 02/18/2021 01:45 am

    "I, an employee of this organization, do not believe the teachings of this organization, in fact strongly disagree with the teachings. Yet I want, and deserve to, represent this organization publicly and serve in a leadership role."  

    Is that not pretty bizarre thinking?

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