Cue the Organ Music: Court Administers the Ministerial Exception to Music MinisterCan an organist really be considered a church minister? In a detailed and unique opinion, an Illinois federal court applied the First Amendment’s religious clauses to a church employee who claimed he had been discriminated against due to his age and national origin. While it is unlikely that many of us will confront such a factual situation, the case does provide some lessons about the importance of job descriptions and case-by-case factual inquiries.

The Demoted Organist

Since 1992, the Plaintiff, Stanislaw Sterlinski, was the Director of Music at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish in Illinois. In 2014, Sterlinski was demoted, and instead of running the music program (with all that entailed) he only played the organ at church functions. He was no longer full-time and lost his benefits. Sometime after the demotion, Sterlinski was fired. He subsequently filed suit against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago claiming he was demoted and then terminated because of age discrimination, national origin discrimination and retaliation.

The church moved to dismiss the claims based on the First Amendment ministerial exception. The court granted the motion as to the demotion from Director of Music, but permitted limited discovery on the question of whether Sterlinski’s organist job qualified as ministerial. The church filed for summary judgment claiming that as an organist Sterlinski was a minister and that the First Amendment protected the church’s employment decision because of the protection of freedom of religion. As such, the court’s main focus was on whether Sterlinski’s job counted as a minister and whether the functions he performed as an organist were ministerial in nature.

Does Music Matter?

The most interesting part of the court’s opinion is its detailed analysis of the role that music plays in church functions. Why did the court look at this? The court first noted that case law shows that the First Amendment grants a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws; “ministers” cannot sue  a religious-institution employer for race, sex or other discrimination. The purpose of the exception is to ensure that “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church’s alone.” However, in this case, the applicability of that exception depended on whether Sterlinski’s job as an organist, and solely an organist, rose to the level of minister. In order to make this determination, the court had to figure out if music was such an essential part of worship that Sterlinski’s playing of it counted as ministering to the faithful.

In support of their claim that playing the organ at church functions was a ministerial function, the church presented an affidavit from the Office of Divine Worship that stated that music played and sung at Mass is never “simply music,” but is instead sung prayer. The church also submitted a church document specifically emphasizing the organ in worship, stating that the instrument is “accorded pride of place” due to its size and ability to generate emotion during worship. These pieces of evidence, coupled with the court’s deference to a religion’s own designation of what constitutes religious activity, were enough to sway the court that music plays a significant role in the church’s services.

Sterlinski countered these arguments by stating that he wasn’t allowed to pick the music played in the services and only “robotically played notes from sheet music.” He argued that these facts took him out of the role of ministerial function. On the first point, the court noted that his lack of choice in picking the music wasn’t that different from a priest being told what scripture to read based on a liturgical calendar. On the second point, the court cited several cases where accompanists were found to be performing ministerial functions even if they just played the notes on the page. The court noted again that official church doctrine establishes that music conveys a religious message and instrumentalists who play it are important ministers of the faith. Based on all these reasons, the court found that Sterlinski performed ministerial functions, even as only an organist, and therefore his suit could not proceed.

My Workplace Doesn’t Have an Organ, So Who Cares?

Understandably, this district court opinion will have a direct effect on a very small group of cases (if any). However, the court’s attention to detail and the evidence shows how important it is to have specific documents and testimony to back up an employment decision. Here, the church was able to provide specific evidence as to the importance of some of the job duties of the organist position.

As we preach (pun intended) from this blog all the time, be sure your employment decisions are consistent with your policies and your job descriptions. Nothing gives a lawyer more heartburn than to hear that an employer has no documentation to support an employment decision.

(Cue the sad organ music.)