A federal judge has ruled that a Catholic parish was within its rights to fire an organist after he “married” another man. Now, the “ministerial exception” has been supported over and over again but folks keep trying to get around it. And sometimes it works. Some lower courts have made end runs around the exception that take away the right of the religious institution to decide who is a minister and who is not. But in this case, religious freedom won. So it’s good news. But I’ll explain why I’m a little concerned.
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.
I love how he describes himself as a “highly educated lay person.” Who says that? Who says, “I’m not a minister! I’m a highly educated lay person!” He didn’t even say “layman” although considering he’s a gay guy that might have been confusing. So never mind that part, I guess. But you know what I mean.
I’m actually a little uncomfortable that the judge in this case decided who was and who wasn’t a “minister” here. Either the religious institution decides or the right is taken away. Something to watch for.