Gay Worship Leader May Have Discrimination Claim Against Church

By Jeffrey Rhodes Aug 10, 2016

​A director of music and worship claimed he was discharged for becoming engaged to his same-sex partner.

A gay music and worship director's discrimination claims against a Catholic parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago could not be dismissed on the pleadings, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled.

The Holy Family Parish in Inverness, Ill., employed John Collin Collette as its director of worship and director of music for 17 years before he was terminated. Collette became engaged to marry his same-sex partner and claimed that the parish and the archdiocese asked him to resign. Collette refused and was terminated shortly thereafter on July 27, 2014.

According to Collette, the archdiocese's cardinal showed him e-mails that indicated that his termination was the result of his entering into a "non-sacramental marriage," and the Holy Family Parish's weekly church bulletin stated that he was fired for his "participation in a form of union that cannot be recognized as a sacrament by the church." Collette believed these explanations were false because the archdiocese and parish employed heterosexuals that entered into non-sacramental marriages, including marriages not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, and because gay and lesbian employees who were not married were employed there.

After his firing, Collette filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois claiming that he was fired because of his sex, sexual orientation and marital status in violation of Title VII, the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance. The archdiocese and the parish sought dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that, on its face, the complaint was barred by the ministerial exception to the anti-discrimination laws. 

The ministerial exception bars a minister from making an employment discrimination claim against a religious institution, based on the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The exception recognizes a church's freedom to control its faith and doctrine through its selection and discipline of leaders and instructors. The parish and archdiocese argued that because Collette admitted in his complaint that he was the director of worship and director of music for the parish, he necessarily qualified as a "minister" under the law. 

The court acknowledged the existence of the ministerial exception and that it has been applied to worship directors that use "discretionary religious judgment" in selecting music and preparing choral arrangements for churches. The court noted, however, that Collette claimed in his complaint that he was not responsible for planning the liturgy or selecting the music played during masses and services and that he never selected nor approved music or liturgy for masses. The court found that the title of Collette's position alone could not determine whether he was a "minister." Rather, the court had to consider the "functional role" of Collette's position as director of worship and music director to determine whether the position was ministerial in nature.

The court thus denied the motion to dismiss filed by the parish and archdiocese, and it directed the case to proceed with a limited discovery process to determine the nature of Collette's duties with the parish. The court also scheduled a status conference to set dates for the parties to provide evidence and arguments concerning the application of the ministerial exemption to Collette's job so that the court could decide whether the claims could proceed to trial.

Collette v. Archdiocese of Chicago, N.D. Ill., No. 16-C-2912 (July 29, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Churches and other religious institutions have wide discretion in choosing their doctrinal leaders and instructors. They may consider the race, sex, age, marital status and sexual orientation of applicants for these key positions. If the position does not have discretionary religious duties, however, the exception does not apply and a religious institution could face strict penalties for discrimination.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.


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