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Court Defends Church's Freedom Against Fired Gay Employee

In a victory for religious freedom, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago against a former employee, Colin Collette. Collette sued the church for discrimination last year after being fired as a result of announcing his same-sex "engagement" on Facebook in 2014.

"Colin Collette knew what the house rules of the Catholic Church were before he announced his 'engagement' to his boyfriend in 2014, so he should not have been surprised when the parish he worked for fired him," Catholic League President Bill Donohue declared in a statement praising the ruling. When Collette was dismissed in 2014, then-Archbishop of Chicago Francis Cardinal George said the gay man was fired for his "participation in a form of union that cannot be recognized as a sacrament by the Church."

Collette, who served as music director at Holy Family Catholic Community for 17 years, told The Chicago Tribune he felt a "sense of abandonment by the church." On March 3, 2016, he sued the church seeking reinstatement of his job, lost wages, and damages.

On April 18, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas P. Kocoras ruled against Collette, dismissing the lawsuit and upholding the church's religious freedom over hiring and firing. (The decision was announced last week.) Kocoras rooted the church's freedom in the First Amendment, but he also cited the 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

That case underscored the "ministerial exception," which "precludes application of [employment discrimination] legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers." The case centered on the question of whether or not Collette, who served as the music minister, qualified as a "minister" for such exceptions.

Collette argued that he was not a minister but "a highly educated lay person." But Kocaras explained that the legal definition of a minister does not rely on ordination but on "the function of the position." The judge ruled that "by playing music at church services, Collette served an integral role in the celebration of mass," since his "musical performances furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants."

Since music plays a vital role in worship at a Catholic mass, the music director is "critical to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church," and therefore the church is not required to abide by discrimination law.

Collette attacked Kocoras, telling the Tribune that the decision "flies in such contradiction to the wonderful things that are coming out of Rome. the pope is speaking about unity and love, and here we are creating a church of fear and division."

Collette's attorney Kerry Lavelle said in a statement Wednesday that the Catholic Church has "chosen to stand behind its ministerial exception to discriminate against members of the gay community."