The European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday that the dismissal of a doctor by a Catholic-run hospital in Germany because he got married for a second time amounted to discrimination under EU law.
The case, which was referred to the ECJ after working its way through the German courts for three years, could have significant implications for the way church-run institutions can treat their staff in the country. Under the German constitution, Catholic employers are permitted to fire staff who breach religious rules that would not apply to employees at secular companies and institutions.
The doctor, who was only referred to as “JQ”, was head of the internal medicine department at the Catholic St. Vinzenz Hospital in Düsseldorf. The hospital is managed by IR, a company established under German law which is subject to the supervision of the German archbishop of Cologne.
JQ had married his first wife in a Roman Catholic ceremony but the marriage broke down. The pair subsequently divorced, but the marriage was not annulled. He later married another woman in a civil ceremony. The hospital cited this as the reason for his dismissal.
The doctor challenged the firing at Germany’s Federal Labour Court which subsequently asked the ECJ to interpret whether the actions of the hospital were in line with the EU Equal Treatment Directive.
In its ruling, the Luxembourg court said the “prohibition of all discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, now enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, is a mandatory general principle of EU law.” The court further added this was “sufficient in itself to confer on individuals a right that they may actually rely on in disputes between them in a field covered by EU law.”
The case now returns to the German justice system for the final ruling to be determined.