700 parishioners met at a suburban Chicago parish last Wednesday to discuss the firing of gay music director Colin Collette, who was let go in late July after his engagement to partner, William Nifong, became public.
The firing, and others like it, raises questions about how Catholic communities will proceed in an era where marriage equality is increasingly legalized, and also how they Catholics can respond to the worrying trend of LGBT-related church worker firings.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the three-hour meeting was emotionally charged, and attendees were largely supportive of the fired gay church worker, who was welcomed with a standing ovation. The paper reported:
“Angry, tearful parishioners stood in line at the crowded church, each taking a turn to beg church leaders to bring back their longtime music director…
“As other parishioners looked on, a cantor announced his resignation from the choir, citing other prominent ‘sinners’ in Christian history who retained high-ranking positions and questioning why a gay couple’s marriage is any different. Over the past two weeks, some parishioners have also threatened to leave the church over the music director’s ouster.”
The resigned cantor, Kevin Keane, told the Tribune that Collette “has given his entire life to the church…if he’s not fit to serve, then I am not fit to serve.” Another parishioner, Bob Garbacz said, “Whoever made the decision, it was a bad decision…He’s just a pillar of that community. For the church to say you can’t be here because of this rule is ludicrous to us.”
Fr. Terry Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Church, called the “Town Hall Meeting for Listening and Respect” to address the “many and varied emotions” expressed by community members about Collette’s firing. In the same bulletin announcement that publicized the meeting, Keehan defended the firing: “Employees who make such choices cannot remain employed by the Archdiocese” and he said the situation was “very complicated and complex.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago, through spokesperson Susan Burritt defended the firing, saying it was not because of Collette’s sexual orientation but because of his “public stance against the teachings of the Church,” and that “the archdiocese does not expect to see more public challenges to the church policy.”
The idea that Collette’s firing and the ensuing public outcry are isolated incidents is an idea that is out of touch with the current history. LGBT-related firings are on the rise with fourteen public cases so far this year and more than 35 since 2008. Legally, it seems some of these firing are justified under the “ministerial exception” carved about by the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision. The reality for religious communities however is that, in most of these cases, Catholics openly stood by church workers and sought justice.
The conflict between officials who enact these unjust decisions and a laity which is strongly affirming of LGBT people will only intensify if the firings continue. Societal acceptance of same-gender relationships is ever-rising and marriage rights ever-expanding, with Catholics at the forefront of LGBT support. Gregory Lipper with Americans United for Separation of Church and State explains:
” ‘I don’t think this approach is going to be sustainable in the long run by churches…Unless you really ask upfront, chances are, houses of worship are going to end up hiring people who are gays and lesbians…I think the gap between church leadership and the gap between Americans will grow wider.”
While pastors like Fr. Keehan may see town hall meetings as a way of promoting healing, reconciliation never comes without justice. Collette had sought to return as music director by becoming a private contractor, but Keehan rejected this proposal at a separate meeting. Formed by Catholic social teaching, parishioners do not accept exclusionary policies as consistent with the Gospel message. For them, these situations are not complicated, nor are they complex. They are simple cases of discrimination that demand to be rectified.
Collette plans to continue worshiping at Holy Family, and it is good to know he will be welcomed with open arms by those whom he long served.
You can help protect LGBT and ally church workers by implementing an inclusive non-discrimination policy at your local parish or Catholic school. You can find information on how to do that by clicking here. For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of ‘Employment Issues,’ click the category to the right. For a full listing of LGBT-related firings, with links for further information, click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry