Fired Gay Music Director Fires Discrimination Complaints

Colin Collette at a press conference last week
Colin Collette at a press conference last week

Fired music director Colin Collette has filed federal and local discrimination complaints against the Chicago-area Catholic parish where he was employed for 17 years.

These filings are the first step in a potential lawsuit, hinging on just what “ministerial exemption” means in employment law.

In filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Cook County Commission on Human Rights, Collette claims the pastor and manager of Holy Family Parish, Inverness, discriminated against him on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and marital status. He was fired because his employer thought that Collette’s social media announcement of his engagement to Will Nifong was a public violation of church teaching.

Collette attempted to negotiate with the Archdiocese of Chicago, including a September meeting with Cardinal Emeritus Francis George. However, a lawyer for the fired church worker said these conversations were stalled, and newly-installed Archbishop Blase Cupich had not responded. Collette told the Chicago Tribune

” ‘It is with deep regret that I have had to pursue this course of action…I have chosen to enter into a marriage, as is my right under Illinois law, and perhaps I can open the door to other men and women who the church has chosen to exclude from the community.’ “

Neither the parish nor the Archdiocese of Chicago would comment on the newly filed discrimination complaints. The Tribune explains the filings’ potential implications further:

“A federal discrimination complaint generally has to be filed and reviewed before a person can sue a former employer over alleged discrimination. The EEOC can issue an aggrieved employee a notice of the right to sue the employer or, in rare cases, the agency can sue the employer on the employee’s behalf.

“The success or failure of Collette’s claim will likely turn on what’s called the ‘ministerial exception’ to anti-discrimination law, legal experts said. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that religious institutions have broad latitude in hiring and firing people whose jobs include religious roles.”

That case, EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor, expanded the ministerial exemption beyond clergy without laying out clear guidelines. Whether or not Collette’s role as the parish’s music director is considered ministerial would be have to be adjudicated in any potential litigation. Though the former church worker has expressed a desire to return to his job previously, this recent legal action is aimed at “change and justice” and he told Crux:

” ‘My goal is not just to continue a career in the community that I love…Directing both worship and the music ministry, it is truly my vocation. It is who I am, and it saddens me to have this integral part of my life taken away because I have chosen to enter into a marriage…’ “

Regardless of the legal outcome of this case, Collette’s firing and those LGBT-related employment disputes which have lead to than 40 church workers losing their jobs since 2008 cause tremendous pastoral damage. A town hall at Holy Family Parish four months ago drew hundreds, almost all in support of the gay music director, who received a standing ovation. Several volunteers resigned from the parish in protest of the firing. One parishioner spoke about the pastoral harm, saying, “Everybody was welcome…That’s become a lie.

The Chicago archdiocese is under new leadership with Archbishop Cupich, who has signaled his willingness to dialogue and respect differences in the church. He can start exemplifying this willingness by meeting with Collette and working towards a moratorium on firing people for LGBT-related issues.

In a related note, another fired church worker, Jamie Moore, has decided not to sue Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

To read more about Colin Collette’s case and all Bondings 2.0‘s coverage of these church worker disputes visit the “Employment Issues” category to the right. For a full listing of those disputes made public since 2008, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

9 thoughts on “Fired Gay Music Director Fires Discrimination Complaints

  1. Friends December 6, 2014 / 5:44 am

    You’ve got it exactly right, and you anticipated my own comment: THIS is the first place where we get to see whether Archbishop Cupich is going to “Walk The Walk”, and not just “Talk The Talk”. If he reinstates Collette — and hopefully also compensates him for the wages that he lost, merely because of his perfectly legal civil marriage, which has nothing to do with his professional duties — it will be a very good sign indeed. But if he refuses to do so, I think we’re faced with a very sad and discouraging example of “Same Old Same Old”. It’s down upon Archbishop Cupich to DO THE RIGHT THING here.

    • Michael Ejercito February 7, 2015 / 12:30 pm

      The right thing is to enforce Catholic teaching; it is plain and clear that directing religious music is ministerial in nature.

  2. Carlos Florido, osf December 6, 2014 / 9:40 am

    If the Roman Archdiocese of Chicago does not want gays in ministry, in all fairness, they should defrock the gay priests presently serving the institution. Such action would give the present shortage of priests a new frighting and demoralizing meaning.

    • Friends December 6, 2014 / 10:46 am

      Brilliant suggestion…and BANG ON! Pope Francis, to his great credit, is taking significant steps to destigmatize the participatory presence of GLBT Catholics in the life of the Church. And if he’s even going to overlook the sexual orientation of his ordained priests — which he seemed ready to do, in his now-famous “Who Am I To Judge”? remark — then in simple justice, he needs to extend the very same caritas and courtesy to all other servants of the Church, including his Ministers of Music.

  3. Bill Freeman December 6, 2014 / 2:18 pm

    Either way this is decided, this will be a legal watershed moment for U.S.gay and lesbian Americans and not just Catholics.

  4. Sue B December 7, 2014 / 3:11 am

    I’m proud of you Colin. Congratulations on your marriage. I hope you experience all the joy Tom & I have since you joined us at our wedding 17 years ago.

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