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Catholic hospital can’t fire doctor for violating morality: Court

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The Roman Catholic Church cannot hold its employees accountable if they break their contractual obligation to live by the Church’s teachings, a German court has ruled. In an Orwellian twist, the court ruled that firing a baptized Catholic from a Catholic institution for violating Catholic teachings constitutes religious discrimination.

Germany’s Federal Labor Court (the Bundesarbeitsgericht) decided on Wednesday that St. Vinzenz Hospital in Düsseldorf impermissibly fired a doctor who got divorced and remarried.

The nonprofit hospital, which is under the supervision of the archdiocese of Cologne, contractually requires all Catholic managers to uphold the church’s moral doctrines. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “indissolubility” is “essential to marriage,” and divorced people may not receive Holy Communion.

The head of the hospital’s internal medicine department, who is referred to only as “JQ,” signed the contract. In 2008, he divorced a woman he had married in a Roman Catholic ceremony and did not seek an annulment before marrying a different woman in a civil ceremony later the same year. The hospital cited his contract when it fired him in 2009.

JQ sued (see I Cor. 6:5-6), arguing in court that, since the hospital’s non-Catholic employees are not contractually bound to follow Catholic morality, he’s being held to an unequal standard. He specifically cited Protestants in comparable positions who had remarried without repercussion.

A lower court sided with him in 2011, but the Constitutional Court (the German equivalent of the Supreme Court) overturned that ruling in 2014.

The final court for labor disputes, the Federal Labor Court, asked the European Court of Justice if the ruling complied with EU law.

The ECJ ruled that the firing JQ may “constitute unlawful discrimination on grounds of religion,” albeit “hidden discrimination.”

The hospital’s case was undermined, in part, because its religious requirement “differs according to the faith or lack of faith” or an employee. Ironically, had the church imposed its morality on its non-Catholic or non-Christian employees it may have prevailed on that point – although doing so is plainly worse religious discrimination than anything JQ alleges.

The ECJ added that a religious institution may only impose an occupational requirement touching religion or morality if it is “genuine, legitimate, and justified in the light of the ethos of the church or organisation concerned.” However, in its opinion, “adherence to the notion of marriage advocated by the Catholic Church does not appear to be necessary for the promotion of [the hospital’s Catholic] ethos,” an ECJ press release explained.

The ECJ sent the case back to the German Federal Labor Court, which issued the final decision against the hospital.

The court ruling is concerning on multiple fronts – but to understand this properly, it’s important to separate the government from the underlying issue.

From a consumer’s perspective, we do not care about a doctor’s private life or faith; we just want to see the most qualified person. Imposing unrelated demands on an employee is counterproductive. An excellent ministry offers the highest quality service and, if that is performed by a non-Catholic, that doubles as a lesson in religious tolerance.

However, churches or religious orders create nonprofit healthcare facilities as an extension, an incarnation, of their beliefs. The same faith that teaches Catholics that marriage is indissoluble impels them to engage in corporeal acts of mercy. Those who do not wish to abide by a religious nonprofit’s moral strictures are not compelled to associate themselves with its ministry. And consumers will reward institutions that hire based on performance rather than ideological orthodoxy. The market can sort this out far more efficiently than the courts.

That said, this ruling is troubling for four reasons.

First, the ECJ ruled that determining whether requiring adherence to a specific Christian teaching is necessary to preserve an institution’s religious character “is a matter to be determined by the national courts.” But granting courts this authority establishes secular judges as the final arbiters of church doctrine. State officials, rather than ecclesiastical authorities, determine which church teachings are vital to a denomination, overruling that church’s self-definition.

Second, the case establishes a curious and novel definition of “religious discrimination.” Heretofore, courts penalized an employer who tried to prevent someone from following his religion’s teachings. The ECJ punished the Catholic Church for trying to uphold its religious teachings in one of its own institutions. European officials have invented a new inalienable right for the impious to flout the doctrines of their faith, invert its morality, and redefine their church’s teachings in their own image.

Third, the case seems to hold that a behavior permitted to any employee must be permitted to all employees. If a Protestant (who can divorce and remarry without violating his religion) can remarry, so can a Catholic (who cannot). Would that principle give a Catholic physician the right to marry a child bride, since Germany’s Federal Court of Justice recently ruled the government must recognize such unions for Muslim migrants? The ECJ’s ruling implies that, since moral standards about marriage do not directly relate to one’s job duties, a head physician legally married to a minor would in no way undermine the hospital’s Catholic “ethos.”

Finally, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s penchant for translational jurisprudence, this ruling may soon become more important for Americans than we care to imagine.

 (Photo credit: Chris Potter. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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