Yesterday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided an important case under the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws. The case was Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago and it involved a lawsuit brought by Stanislaw Sterlinski who claimed he was fired from his position as a church organist because of his Polish heritage. Mr. Sterlinski used to hold the position as Director of Music but was then demoted to the job of organist and subsequently terminated from employment. The Court stated that, while Sterlinski was Director of Music, he was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception to Title VII and could have been fired for any reason. But the question the Court wrestled with was whether Sterlinski could be considered a “minister” after he was demoted to the position of organist and, more importantly, who gets to decide the answer to that question?
The answer to that question is important. The ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims gives churches the right to hire and fire and make employment decisions for any reason without being subject to Title VII (and other employment discrimination laws). The ministerial exception flows out of the recognition that a “minister” is the lifeblood of a congregation and churches should not be forced to accept or retain a minister they do not want. The word “minister” means more than just a priest or preacher. The Supreme Court held a few years back that a Lutheran schoolteacher was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception. The old adage that “personnel is policy” is true and courts have recognized for years that forcing churches to accept or retain unwanted ministers can profoundly affect the direction and course of the church.
Sterlinski argued that his job was simply to play notes assigned to him and therefore was not religious. The Church argued that music was an integral part of its services and so the organist position was religious. The Seventh Circuit highlighted a disagreement over who gets to decide what is religious – federal judges or the church? The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in an earlier case that it can decide for itself whether a given employee’s job was religious as opposed to secular. The Seventh Circuit took a different approach and recognized that: “If the Roman Catholic Church believes that organ music is vital to its religious services, and that to advance its faith it needs the ability to select organists, who are we judges to disagree? Only by subjecting religious doctrine to discovery and, if necessary, jury trial, could the judiciary reject a church’s characterization of its own theology and internal organization.” The Court held that subjecting churches to this kind of decision-making by federal judges would result in “judicial entanglement in, and second-guessing of, religious matters.” Instead, a church must be given the right to assert that a particular job is religious and the job of a federal judge is simply to determine whether that characterization is honest not whether it is correct.
The issue of which employees fall within the ministerial exception is one that is heavily litigated. There will be more cases about this issue and it is important for churches and religious organizations to address this matter with competent legal counsel before an employee files a claim. If your church or ministry needs help with this issue, please contact me at Provident Law. Send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Being prepared is much better than trying to scramble after a lawsuit is filed.
The Seventh Circuit took the right approach in this case. Churches and ministries, especially in the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit’s different approach, should put in the work now to prepare themselves for employment discrimination claims. Provident Law is here to help.