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.”

“That someone of [Collette’s] commitment and ability is prevented from pursuing their career in this day and age is a sign of how far some institutions have to go in accepting all members of society, and demonstrates that there are still many individuals who are not granted equal rights in the workplace,” Lavelle added.

But the church’s decision to fire Collette was not an act of discrimination. The church did not fire him until he publicly declared his engagement to his boyfriend. This means he publicly declared his intent to marry a man.

Biblical Christians consider marriage to be between one man and one woman, but Roman Catholics take it even further than most. They believe marriage to be a sacrament, an institutional way of accepting God’s grace. For a Catholic church minister to declare his intent to enter into a union called “marriage” which is not the Catholic sacrament would be a particularly egregious insult and would place him beyond the acceptable boundaries of Catholicism.

Collette’s public celebration of his homosexual relationship arguably required a public response from the church, that it was holding to Catholic doctrine and that this man’s gay “marriage” would not be acceptable for an employee at a Catholic church.

When Collette was fired, the archdiocese explained that those working in church ministries are expected to conform their lives publicly with the teachings of the Catholic Church. “This is a matter of personal integrity on their part.”

As for Pope Francis, he has indeed emphasized God’s love and mercy, but he has never altered Catholic doctrine about what marriage is. Francis’ off-the-cuff statements — and even a few of his encyclicals — may lean liberal, but the Roman Catholic Church does not accept gay marriage and almost certainly never will. Pope Francis has made it clear that he supports the Catholic position on homosexuality.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, same-sex relations are “intrinsically disordered,” and “under no circumstances can they be approved.”

Catholics — and many Christians in general — believe that people with same-sex attraction should be treated with dignity, can be saved, and should receive love, not judgement from believers. The church did not fire Collette out of “hatred,” but out of a respect for Catholic doctrine.

Kocoras’ decision upholding that firing is an important victory for religious freedom at a time when such victories seem sparse. Oregon bakers have been forced out of business after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. A Washington florist was fined for refusing to serve a gay wedding. A Massachusetts state guidance dictated that churches must follow transgender ideology regardless of their beliefs. An LGBT group in Ohio announced its intentions to force churches to host gay weddings on their property.

Just this past week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attacked one of President Trump’s nominees for his Christian faith, saying that this man “is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”

Kocoras’ decision demonstrates that religious freedom is still a core American value, and that the courts will not always side with those who attack it. But those opponents will continue to attack a church’s devotion to Christian doctrines as “discrimination,” and Christians will have to remain vigilant.