In a ruling released last week, a federal judge has said a Catholic parish was legally justified in firing a gay church worker. The Washington Blade reported:
“In a seven-page decision, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras determined Tuesday the Holy Family Parish, which is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Chicago, had the right to terminate Colin Collette because the worker’s position was ministerial in nature.
“‘By playing music at church services, Collette served an integral role in the celebration of mass,’ Kocoras said. ‘Collette’s musical performances furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants. Therefore, Collette’s duties as Musical Director fall within the ministerial exception.'”
Collette sued Holy Family and the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2015 claiming employment discrimination under federal, state, and county laws. It was hoped Collette’s case would add to the small, but growing number of legal victories for church workers who have lost their jobs over LGBT issues.
Judge Kocoras did not, however, rule on whether Collette was discriminated against by the parish; he ruled on whether the firing was protected under the so-called “ministerial exemption.”
According to the Blade, the judge’s actions preceding the ruling show he “entertained the idea Collette’s position wasn’t ministerial in nature and therefore protected under the civil rights law.” But that was not where Kocoras ended up, as he explained in the ruling:
“[A] position can be found to be ministerial if it requires the participant to undertake religious duties and functions. . .Here, Collette worked with church volunteers to choose the music that would enhance the prayer offered at mass. Choosing songs to match the weekly scripture required the group, including Collette, to make discretionary religious judgments since the Catholic Church does not have rules specifying what piece of music is to be played at each mass.'”
Collette was fired in 2014 as Holy Family’s music minister because his engagement to longtime partner and now husband, Will Nifong, became known to church officials. The firing was traumatic for the parish, where Collette had served for 17 years. Some 700 parishioners attended a town hall about it and there welcomed Collette with a standing ovation. One parishioner expressed anger and disappointment at the treatment of Collette, saying: “Everybody was welcome…That’s become a lie.”
The firing is problematic not only for the parish, but for the Archdiocese as well. Archbishop Blase Cupich has said the consciences of LGBT people must be respected, and even endorsed legal protections for families headed by same-gender partners. Yet, the Archdiocese has continued to defend the firings of Collette and another gay church worker, Sandor Demkovich.
This latest ruling should not be celebrated by church officials because, while it may be legal justice, it has not advanced social justice. Archbishop Cupich could, however, freely choose to act for the common good by apologizing to Collette and taking the lead in reconciliation efforts at Holy Family.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 25, 2017
If you would like to learn more about the issue of LGBT church workers in Catholic institutions, consider attending
Leslie Griffin, a professor of law, will give a plenary session talk on “Religious Liberty, Employment, & LGBT Issues” at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. During one of the focus sessions, three people affected by the firings, Colleen Simon, Margie Winters, and Andrea Vettori will give personal testimony about “The Challenges of LGBT Church Workers.” For more information, visit www.Symposium2017.org.