Newman Society Urges Ministerial Exception for Archdiocese of Chicago

In a federal lawsuit that has potential consequences for Catholic education and all religious employers, The Cardinal Newman Society filed an amicus brief Tuesday urging the full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the ministerial exception and protect the First Amendment rights of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The brief is authored by the expert attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a leading defender of religious freedom.

The plaintiff—a former parish music director who was fired after entering into a same-sex marriage—has argued that his claim of a “hostile work environment” is not prohibited by the ministerial exception. This would limit the ministerial exception to hiring and firing decisions, while allowing employees to sue employers for teaching religious views and upholding moral principles that are deemed offensive.

A panel of 7th Circuit judges has agreed, allowing the suit against the Archdiocese of Chicago to proceed. But the Archdiocese has appealed for a ruling by the full court, and the Newman Society brief supports that request.

In the brief, ADF attorneys cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey-Berru, which prohibits courts from interfering in all “employment disputes” with employees who have “substantial religious duties.” This includes hostile environment claims.

“The panel majority’s ruling is unprecedented,” the brief warns. “No federal appellate court has allowed a minister’s hostile-environment claims to proceed once a church alleges a religious reason for the disputed conduct.”

“Churches’ autonomy depends on their ability to control the ministerial employment relationship, free from government ‘influence,’” argues the brief, citing Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Whether the government’s orders relate to a church’s obvious or indirect employment actions makes no difference. The First Amendment guarantees churches’ religious and ecclesiastical autonomy.”

But the 7th Circuit panel decision puts Catholic education in an “untenable position,” the Newman Society warns.

“A Catholic school has freedom to hire and fire ministers based on alignment with the Catholic Church’s religious teachings about sex, sexual orientation, and marriage. But if a Catholic school minister engages in a course of conduct that violates the Catholic Church’s teachings, and the school persistently communicates that the minister has strayed from the school’s moral expectations and should repent, the school can now be forced to endure a secular trial.”

The Newman Society seeks the renewal of faithful Catholic education and is concerned with protecting the rights of Catholic schools and colleges to teach truth in accord with the Catholic faith.

The 7th Circuit panel’s ruling is “an unconstitutional intrusion on ecclesiastical authority, subjecting religious bodies to hostile environment claims that the courts have no authority to adjudicate,” insists the Newman Society.

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