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.