April 22, 2017 at 1:49 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Court allows Chicago church to fire gay worker under religious exemption

A court has ruled a church can fire a gay man under a religious exemption.

A federal court this week rejected a Chicago-based music director’s claim he was unlawfully fired from a Catholic church for being gay, finding the parish can legally terminate the employee under the religious exemptions of civil rights laws.

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.”

In 2014, Collette proposed marriage to his longtime partner, Will Nifong. After the Holy Family Parish learned about the engagement, it terminated Collette from his employment as music director. Collette had served as the parish’s director of music and director of worship for 17 years.

Two years later, Collette filed a lawsuit against the church and the Archdiocese of Chicago, accusing them of “employment discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and marital status” under the Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 as well as Illinois state law and Cook County’s human rights ordinance.

According to his complaint, Collette was shown emails from the Archdiocese’s Cardinal Francis George indicating that his termination was the result of his entering into a “non-sacramental marriage.” The cardinal also publicly stated in an October 2014 weekly church bulletin the termination was the result of Collette’s “participation in a form of union that cannot be recognized as a sacrament by the Church,” per the complaint.

Meanwhile, the church has employed many straight people who have entered “non-sacramental” marriages not sanctioned by the Catholic Church as well as gay employees who haven’t married their partners, according to the complaint. Collette alleged the disparity in treatment amounted to clear-cut discrimination under the law.

Kocoras, a Carter appointee, had sought a limited discovery and dispositive motion schedule, which demonstrates he entertained the idea Collette’s position wasn’t ministerial in nature and therefore protected under the civil rights law.

But Kocoras ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of church after determining “the evidence is overwhelming that Collette’s positions at the Parish were critical to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church,” citing Collette’s role in determining which songs were played at church service.

“[A] position can be found to be ministerial if it requires the participant to undertake religious duties and functions,” Kocoras wrote. “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.”

Had Kocaras determined Collette’s position was for secular duties and not ministerial in nature, such as janitorial work, the church could have been liable for the damages Collette was seeking, which included reinstatement, back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The court reaches the conclusion the Holy Family Parish can lawfully fire Collette shortly after the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sets precedent in the jurisdiction, determined anti-gay workplace discrimination amounts sex discrimination under Title VII and is therefore unlawful even though sexual orientation isn’t mentioned in the law. But that landmark ruling affirmed Title VII applies to gay people without a finding a new application of the law with regard to its religious exemption.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Collette’s lawyers seeking comment on whether or not he intends to appeal the decision against him to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Blade has also placed a request seeking reaction from the Holy Family Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago.

h/t Equality Case Files

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

    • Not re tipping, but a religious exemption is a religious exemption, i.e., the law simply does not apply to or protect that particular employment relationship.

      And this is the case notwithstanding claims of inconsistent enforcement, which would require outing the alleged non-conforming employees to be fully adjudicated.

      Based on the story, it appears that the court carefully considered the fired Gay plaintiff’s claim, which is at least something.

      That doesn’t always happen. Thank you.

  • I never understand why gay people continue to want to work for religious institutions. There are many others alternatives for you. You just set yourself up these situations.

    • So freedom of religion is not a right for gay people?

      • What does your choice to work at a religious institution that you know will discriminate against you have to do with freedom of religion?

        We are free to worship or not, but like we don’t expect them to discriminate against us based on religion in a secular business, you should give them their space and not seek work in places that are specifically religious. Your not going to get widespread support from lawmakers in this regard. Be realistic!

        • The reality is that we’ve allowed people to disregard laws of the land based on their religious ideas and not fact. This is a slippery slope. Remember, there are religious ideas out there that are extreme and if you validate one you need to validate them all.

  • Religious delusion is the single most threat to quality of life globally.

  • We live in a Country that has Truth in Lending and numerous other areas. The so called Catholic church hides behind the Christian shield, and doesn’t come close to following, or practising that which Christ lived, or taught. How about having to prove your actually practising that which you preach, and or, do not follow. They need to be sued for misrepresentation as to Christ. Hence not being honestly religiously, yet very openly Bigoted.

  • I find it disturbing that there is a “ministerial exception” to freedom of religion. Who gets to decide that a church employee is or isn’t a minister? Can’t ALL the activities conducted within a church be considered a ministerial activity by those who lead in that community?

    It’s good that the diocese won, but the language why is still quite alarming.

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