Demkovich: The Ministerial Exception Bars Harassment Claims Too

“The First Amendment ministerial exception protects a religious organization's employment relationship with its ministers, from hiring to firing and the supervising in between.”

This summer, with the foregoing declaration, the en banc Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) dismissed a minister’s hostile work environment claim against his church employer and significantly clarified and strengthened religious institutions’ rights pertaining to their employment of ministers. The Court’s decision in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, overturned a smaller panel of the Circuit Court holding that the “ministerial exception” was not applicable and therefore that ministerial employees could pursue hostile work environment claims.

As a result of this decision, churches and other worshipping bodies within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction (and perhaps beyond), should enjoy legal protection from a wider range of ministerial employment-related claims as a result of the decision. Such worshipping bodies may continue to lean into their sincerely held religious beliefs as a strong basis for their important employment-related decisions. But this decision intensifies a split among the federal courts of appeals, which may lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling with further clarification. The following paragraphs provide some background to the decision, analyze the court’s reasoning, and discuss implications for religious employers and further court proceedings.

Christians Engaged: Getting Religion, Politics, and Public Charity Status Right

Earlier this summer, the IRS issued a now-well-publicized rejection letter against Christians Engaged (CE) for being too political to qualify for Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. But, as explained in its IRS Form 1023 application, Christians Engaged operates for religious purposes, encourages people to pray for our country’s leaders, educates on moral issues with public policy, and carries out other activities with political overlays. An uproar ensued in opposition to this denial among tax practitioners, religious organizations, and politicians – with the welcome result that the IRS reversed course and summarily recognized the organization’s tax-exempt status. Was the IRS initially right or wrong? What could Christians Engaged have done better? And what can other Section 501(c)(3) organizations learn from the IRS’s bizarre handling?

Of Safety and Second Chances: Applying Illinois' Amended "Ban-the-Box" Law to Child Safety Screening

Is the Illinois’ Employee Background Fairness Act a game-changer for nonprofits’ child safety screening? This new law, passed earlier in 2021, makes it a civil rights violation for employers to reject applicants or otherwise take adverse action against employees based on their criminal convictions. But thankfully, and sensibly, nonprofits that provide children’s programs, such as schools, sports activities, and childcare services, are fully able to consider individuals’ criminal records in assessing their suitability for working with children. Organizational leaders should now do so more thoughtfully with respect to their employees, and with continued complete discretion for their volunteer workers.