Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal judge has allowed a discrimination lawsuit to proceed against the Archdiocese of Chicago. The plaintiff alleges that his engagement to another man resulted in his termination. The church sought to dismiss the case under the ministerial exception doctrine. The District Court ruled that the ministerial exception, as an affirmative defense, does not render plaintiff’s claims meritless, and ordered the parties to proceed to discovery on the issue of whether plaintiff was, indeed, a minister such that the exception could apply.

The “ministerial exception” implicates both employment law and religious freedom by essentially barring workplace bias suits by church employees who act as “ministers” to their denominations. Most famously, the Supreme Court’s unanimous holding in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC ruled for the first time that religious employers were permitted to discriminate against employees deemed to be ministers under the “ministerial exception” implicit in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. In doing so, the Court essentially gave religious employers carte blanche to hire (and fire) their ministers. Yet the Court chose not to provide a precise definition of “minister”–a key, if not the key, component to determining the applicability of the “ministerial exception.” Instead, the Court ruled that ministerial status is a fact-specific inquiry (though the plaintiffs formal title given by the Church, the substance of her work, and religious functions she performed guided their decision), leaving open the question of when and to whom the ministerial exception can and does apply.

Earlier this month, Judge Charles P. Kocoras of the Northern District of Illinois seized on this ambiguity in denying the Archdiocese of Chicago’s motion to dismiss the complaint of John Collette, its former Director of Worship and Director of Music.

According to Mr. Collette’s complaint, the Archdiocese terminated his employment after learning of his engagement to another man. He alleges that the Archdiocese’s Cardinal indicated in emails that his “non-sacramental marriage” was the reason for his termination, and that a weekly church bulletin specified that he was being terminated for “participating in a form of union that cannot be recognized as a sacrament by the Church.” Mr. Collette therefore claimed that his termination discriminated against him on the basis of “his sex, sexual orientation, and marital status.”

The Archdiocese sought dismissal of the case on the basis of its First Amendment Right under the ministerial exception. It argued that Mr. Collette’s titles as Director of Worship and Director of Music sufficiently defined his role as a “minister” within the meaning of the ministerial exception. The Court, however, disagreed.

In his opinion, Judge Kocoras explained that a formal title given to an employee by a religious institution, while relevant, is not dispositive under Hosanna-Tabor. Indeed, he added that additional factors to be considered include the plaintiff’s religious training and the religious mission of his or her position. Judge Kocoras concluded that a “factual record focus[ing] on Collette’s functional role . . . is therefore needed to determine whether that role was ministerial.” He thus denied the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to move forward to discovery.

It remains to be seen what factors the Court will ultimately consider in deciding whether Mr. Collette is a minister under the law. His case, however, makes it clear that religious employers no longer have a carte blanche when it comes to employees they consider ministers. Religious employers may be subject to scrutiny in their employment decisions where discrimination is at play.