Sometimes important cases arise from mundane facts. In the case of a fired church organist in Illinois, his lawsuit against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago hit a dead end at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when that court held that as a “minister,” he could not invoke the power of government nondiscrimination laws to question an essentially ecclesiastical decision. The case is titled Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago.

Why is this case important? It involves conflicting rights: statutory versus constitutional. On the one hand, the case concerns the right of employees to sue for discrimination under federal law. On the other hand, the First Amendment guarantees the right of religious institutions to be free from government interference in the hiring and firing of those considered “ministers.” The case also involves the application of an important Supreme Court precedent, as well as a conflicting decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That mix of issues and court cases has resulted in one of the most significant religious freedom decisions of the year, and will be a case to watch if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stanislaw Sterlinski was originally hired as a director of music at his Chicago parish in 1992. In 2014, he was demoted to the job of organist and let go in 2015. In his lawsuit, Sterlinski alleges he was fired due to his Polish heritage which, if true, would otherwise be enough, in a secular setting, to invoke the prohibitions and remedies of Title VII’s employment discrimination provisions.

However, the principal dispute in the case touches on a religious freedom issue: Is Sterlinski, as an organist, considered a “minister” as the Supreme Court defined that term in its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC decision. If so, the First Amendment provides what the high court called a “ministerial exception” to the operation of the nation’s employment discrimination laws. Sterlinski claims that he is not a “minister” because he just plays the music that he is given. The Catholic Church offered evidence to the effect that organists are “ministers” because they are considered an integral part of the worship life of their churches.

The 7th Circuit ultimately decided that unless the church’s reasoning about the role of an organist (or any other employee it considers to be a “minister”) is pretextual (i.e., the church is lying), then a court (as an arm of government) has no business delving into the theology and inner workings of a church to decide for itself whether or not any given employee is in fact a “minister.”

In the words of the court:

“It is precisely to avoid such judicial entanglement in, and second-guessing of, religious matters that the Justices (of the Supreme Court) established the rule of Hosanna-Tabor.”

That’s good news for churches and religious organizations that want to remain free of excessive government interference in matters that are truly of a religious nature. It’s the reason why the First Amendment begins with the Establishment Clause:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” (The Supreme Court has also used the phrase “separation of church and state” as a shorthand substitute for the Establishment Clause.)

But the 9th Circuit recently decided a case—which preceded Sterlinski—that conflicts with the 7th Circuit’s reasoning. In Biel v. St. James School, the employment dispute involved a teacher at a Catholic school who was terminated. Once again, the employee argued she was not a “minister” and therefore could sue her religious employer under a federal nondiscrimination law. The school argued that she was a “minister,” a status which precluded such a suit. The 9th Circuit ruled in that case that the court could decide for itself whether the teacher was or was not a “minister.” The 7th Circuit had the opportunity in Sterlinski to look at the 9th Circuit’s decision in Biel, but rejected its reasoning.

The two conflicting decisions by appellate courts of equal stature in the federal court system create what is called a “circuit split,” a term which essentially means that the law is different in two different parts of the country. Depending on how many other circuits chime in on one side or another in future cases, the result could be a major, nationwide inconsistency in the law regarding the First Amendment. Eventually—and it could be now if Sterlinski is appealed—the U.S. Supreme Court might step in to resolve the split in favor of either the 7th Circuit’s or 9th Circuit’s interpretation of the “ministerial exception,” or create a new rule altogether.

We’ll follow the Sterlinski case and let you know if and when it gets appealed to the Supreme Court.