7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Title VII National Origin Discrimination Claim

On August 8, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a Title VII national origin discrimination case.  Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, No. 18-2844 (7th Cir. 8/8/2019).  The plaintiff was hired as Director of Music for a  parish, but was demoted to the job of an organist, and subsequently fired.  He claimed in his employment discrimination lawsuit that the defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his Polish heritage.  Until his demotion, he could have been terminated for any reason, because as Director of Music he held substantial authority over the conduct of religious services, and, therefore, would have been treated as a minister for purposes of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutherine Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), which holds that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to ministers.

The plaintiff argued that as an organist, he was just robotically playing the music he was given and, therefore, could not be treated as a minister for purposes of Title VII.  The district court disagreed with this distinction between music-related positions and granted summary judgment to the defendant. The 7th Circuit held that organ playing serves a religious function in the parish, and that therefore, under Hosanna-Tabor, the plaintiff's discharge is outside of the scope of Title VII.