ICJ to rule on Catholic hospital's firing of divorced, remarried doctor

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Germany's top Labor Court at Erfurt has referred the case of a doctor who was fired by a Catholic hospital for remarrying after getting a divorce to the European Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.

The head doctor of the St. Vincent Clinic at Düsseldorf was fired in 2009 for getting remarried after his first marriage ended in divorce the year before. Originally, the Federal Labor Court at Erfurt agreed with two previous court decisions that had concluded that the decision to fire him breached Germany's equal rights laws and ruled that the doctor had been fired unlawfully. The doctor has argued that the clinic would not have dismissed him if he had been Protestant and not Catholic.

The ICJ must now decide whether the doctor was unlawfully fired or whether, in the case concerned, the German Catholic church has the right to apply its own labor rules under the special status it was granted in 1949 which allows it to fire employees who violate church teaching. In this particular case, the church holds that by getting remarried, the doctor violated the church's teaching on the indissolubility of Catholic marriage.

In May 2015 the German bishops' conference revised the church's labor law. Over two-thirds of Germany's 27 Catholic dioceses voted in favor of no longer automatically firing lay employees if they remarried after a divorce.

The point was to limit the consequences of remarriage to the most serious cases that might compromise the church's credibility, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne told KNA news agency at the time.

"People who divorce and remarry are rarely fired," he said. The revised labor law did not negate official church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage but "brings it into line with actual practice," he added.

About one quarter of Germany's hospitals are run by the Catholic church. It has 435 clinics with 98,000 beds, employs 165,000 people and treats 3.5 million patients yearly.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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