Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago
St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish of Chicago, Illinois is dedicated to sharing its Catholic message to a diverse congregation by celebrating Mass in three different languages—English, Spanish, and Polish. As the parish’s musical director and organist, Stanislaw Sterlinski played a vital part of this mission by helping lead worship during Mass and other religious services. But when the parish ended Sterlinski’s employment, he sued the church in federal district court. In 2018, the court protected the church’s right to choose its ministers free from governmental second-guessing, relying on a First Amendment doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” Sterlinski appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and in February of 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending the church’s right to choose its ministers, free from government intrusion. On August 8, 2019, the appeals court agreed with Becket and unanimously ruled in favor of St. Stanislaus Church.
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A diverse Catholic community, singing since 1893
St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish was founded over a century ago in Chicago by Polish families who desired a church community to call home. Today the modest church is dedicated to conveying its Catholic message to a diverse congregation by celebrating Mass in three different languages—English, Spanish, and Polish. One way it does that is through music.
In 1992, the church hired Stanislaw Sterlinski as its musical director. His responsibilities included performing music and leading the choir and congregation in singing during Mass and other liturgical celebrations such as weddings and funerals. The Catholic Church has always placed great importance in the role of music in religious worship, as whoever stands before the congregation in song expresses the Catholic message—both visually and audibly. Nor is that at all unusual: from Catholic Gregorian chant, to the Psalms of David sung in the synagogue, to the Vedic hymns sung by priests at Hindu weddings, music has held religious significance for millennia.
After the church ended Mr. Sterlinski’s employment, he sued the church in federal district court in Illinois. Although Mr. Sterlinski agrees that the government cannot dictate who a church selects to represent its faith, he argues that the church was wrong to say he did anything “religiously meaningful” because he viewed himself as only “robotically play[ing] notes.”
Churches—not the courts—gets to choose ministers
In a previous Becket case, EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously protected the right of a Lutheran school to select its religion teacher, free from government interference. The 2012 ruling set an important precedent confirming the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which ensures that the church—not the state—gets to choose its leaders.
But Mr. Sterlinski’s lawsuit demands courts to become entangled in church affairs by second-guessing the church’s sincere determination that helping lead worship is religiously significant. In July 2018, the federal district court followed Supreme Court precedent and protected the church. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
The Seventh Circuit’s second chance at bolstering Supreme Court precedent
Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a similar case in the Seventh Circuit, which in 2018 protected a Jewish day school’s right to select its Hebrew teacher without government interference. Becket also previously won unanimous victories in the Second and Third Circuit courts protecting the right of a Catholic school to choose its principal and of a Baptist church to choose its pastor, respectively. Becket is currently defending a Catholic school’s right to choose its religion teacher in a similar case before the Ninth Circuit.
On February 21, 2019, Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Seventh Circuit, arguing that St. Stanislaus Church has the undisputed right to choose who its ministers are, free from governmental second-guessing. On August 8, 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with Becket, unanimously ruling in favor of St. Stanislaus Church. The Court also expressly rejected a bad recent Ninth Circuit decision, Biel v. St. James School, agreeing with Becket’s arguments about that case.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious groups should be fully empowered to select the ministers who lead their congregations. The Supreme Court unanimously acknowledged that right in its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision concerning the “ministerial exception” and all courts should follow that precedent. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry.