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Catholic hospital's firing of divorced doctor unlawful

February 20, 2019

Germany's top labor court has ruled that a doctor was wrongfully dismissed by a Catholic clinic for remarrying. The decision could have major implications for church-run employers and the rights they enjoy in Germany.

A Catholic priest clasping his hands
Image: Imago

Germany's Federal Labor Court (Bundesarbeitsgericht) ruled on Wednesday that a Catholic clinic acted unlawfully when it sacked a doctor after he divorced his wife and remarried.

The church argued he had violated church teachings, but the doctor said he was being discriminated against because he was Catholic, saying that his colleagues of different beliefs could have remarried without issue.

Church-run institutions are afforded a special constitutional status in Germany, where they employ about 1.4 million people. The court's decision — the culmination of a decade-long legal dispute — could impact the moral standards the church can hold its workforce to in the future.    

Read moreThe main differences between Catholics and Protestants

The case so far:

  • The Catholic head doctor of the St. Vinzenz Hospital in Düsseldorf divorced his wife and remarried his new partner in a civil ceremony in 2008.
  • His clinic, which belongs to the archdiocese of Cologne, fired him in 2009.
  • It said the doctor had violated the religious loyalty requirements in his job contract because his second marriage breached church laws and moral teachings.
  • The doctor argued he had been discriminated against and would not have been sacked had he not been Catholic. 
  • The labor court ruled in his favor in 2011 and ordered he be reinstated.
  • That ruling was overturned in 2014 by the Constitutional Court, which found Catholic employers should be allowed to impose stricter standards on members of the faith.
  • The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2018 that the sacking constituted discrimination.

Read moreFederal Labor Court rules on religious affiliation and employment

The German Basic Law: freedom of religion

Special constitutional status: Churches in Germany have a certain degree of autonomy and can use their own rules for hiring and firing according to principles enshrined in the country's Basic Law, or constitution. That means they have the right to sack some staff who breach certain religious laws. The secular courts are not allowed to decide whether or not Catholic Church principles are legitimate, only if they are applied fairly and consistently.The task of Germany's highest labor disputes court was to weigh the conflict between the right of churches to decide independently who they employ, and European laws against discrimination on grounds of religious affiliation.

Read moreTop EU court rules church job ads open to discrimination scrutiny

Significant employer: Churches are huge employers in Germany, particularly in the healthcare sector. Catholic charity Caritas and Diakonie, run by the Protestant church, employ more than a million people between them. In recent years Catholic dioceses have begun taking on staff with different or no faiths, resulting in Catholic employees being held to significantly different moral standards than others.

nm/msh (AFP, dpa)

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