Friday, August 09, 2019

7th Circuit Clarifies Application of Ministerial Exception Doctrine

In Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, (7th Cir., Aug.8, 2019), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in an opinion by Judge Easterbrook held employment discrimination allegations brought by an organist in a Catholic church must be dismissed under the "ministerial exception" doctrine.  In deciding the case, the court clarified the 7th Circuit's approach to determining when the ministerial exception doctrine will apply:
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. Yet it is precisely to avoid such judicial entanglement in, and second-guessing of, religious matters that the Justices established the rule of Hosanna-Tabor....
It is easy to see a potential problem with a completely hands-off approach. Suppose a church insists that everyone on its payroll, down to custodians and school-bus drivers, is a minister. That is not fanciful—it is what one religious group did assert in Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, 471 U.S. 290 (1985)....
The answer lies in separating pretextual justifications from honest ones....  Once the defendant raises a justification for an adverse employment action, the plaintiff can attempt to show that it is pretextual. The defense bears the burden of articulating the justification, but the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the justification is a pretext.
Near the end of his opinion, Judge Easterbrook adds an interesting tangential discussion of the history of music in the Catholic Church:
Even Hieronymus von Colloredo, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who sacked Wolfgang Mozart, understood that music has a vital role in the Roman Catholic faith. After Colloredo decided that the mass, including its music, must not  exceed 45 minutes, Mozart asked for leave to travel. Colloredo refused and fired him.... Colloredo thought that lesser (and less demanding) musicians would suffice; he did not remove music from the mass. In 1782 he abolished instrumental music in church and severely limited accompanied music, but the organ remained. The rest of the world gained from Colloredo’s decisions, as Mozart moved to Vienna and went on to produce secular masterpieces such as the Marriage of Figaro and the Jupiter Symphony, as well as two glorious masses in which the music alone exceeds 45 minutes (the Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a, and the Requiem, K. 626).