A federal judge has turned aside a discrimination lawsuit brought by a gay man against the Roman Catholic Chicago Archdiocese for firing him from his role as music director at a church in suburban Inverness after he publicly announced his wedding engagement, saying the man’s tasks in his job at the church meant he “served an integral role in the celebration of mass,” and thus anti-discrimination laws did not apply to him.
In the decision issued in April, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras granted summary judgment to the Archdiocese in its dispute with plaintiff Colin Collette.
Collette had filed suit in March 2016, accusing the Archdiocese and Holy Family Parish of discriminating against him, in violation of the Civil Rights Act, the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance, when the church fired him from his post in 2014.
According to the lawsuit, Collette had worked at the church as music director for 17 years when he took to social media to announce his engagement to be married to his longtime same-sex partner. Shortly after, Collette said church officials requested his resignation and, when he refused to resign, he was fired.
In his complaint, Collette cited emails from the Archdiocese and then-Cardinal Francis George, which attributed his termination to “the result of his entering into a ‘non-sacramental marriage.’”
A posting in a Holy Family church bulletin from that time also reasserted Collette “had been terminated due to his participation in a form of union that cannot be recognized as sacrament by the Church.”
In his lawsuit, Collette argued church leaders had long known he was gay. And he further asserted, despite his job titles, he was not a “ministerial” employee, and so anti-discrimination rules trumped the church’s ability to fire him for not conforming to the church’s religious beliefs and teachings on marriage.
Judge Kocoras, however, said the church in its counterarguments had established that directors of music, like Collette, should be considered “ministerial” employees under federal law, and thus fall under exemptions preserving the rights of churches and other religious organizations to hire and fire certain employees for violating church doctrine.
“This right includes the freedom ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” the judge wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1952 decision in Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral.
Kocoras said the question of whether a worker is a minister cannot be settled simply by titles, or even by levels of relative authority within a church or other organization.
Rather, the judge said, in this case, the question is whether Collette’s duties “were critical to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.”
“Collette argues that he is not a minister because he only facilitated and contributed to, but did not have final say over, the Parish’s weekly music plans,” the judge wrote. “However, authority over ecclesiastical decisions is not a requirement to satisfy the ministerial exception.”
In this case, Kocoras pointed to Collette’s role in selecting musical selections for church services, and performing at church ceremonies, including weddings and funerals.
“Collette’s musical performances furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, Collette’s duties as Musical Director fall within the ministerial exception.”
Collette was represented in the action by attorneys Kristina B. Regal, Kerry Lavelle and Joseph V. Vito, of Lavelle Law, of Palatine.
The Archdiocese was represented by the firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C., of Chicago.