Fired music director Colin Collette has filed federal and local discrimination complaints against the Chicago-area Catholic parish where he was employed for 17 years.
These filings are the first step in a potential lawsuit, hinging on just what “ministerial exemption” means in employment law.
In filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Cook County Commission on Human Rights, Collette claims the pastor and manager of Holy Family Parish, Inverness, discriminated against him on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and marital status. He was fired because his employer thought that Collette’s social media announcement of his engagement to Will Nifong was a public violation of church teaching.
Collette attempted to negotiate with the Archdiocese of Chicago, including a September meeting with Cardinal Emeritus Francis George. However, a lawyer for the fired church worker said these conversations were stalled, and newly-installed Archbishop Blase Cupich had not responded. Collette told the Chicago Tribune:
” ‘It is with deep regret that I have had to pursue this course of action…I have chosen to enter into a marriage, as is my right under Illinois law, and perhaps I can open the door to other men and women who the church has chosen to exclude from the community.’ “
Neither the parish nor the Archdiocese of Chicago would comment on the newly filed discrimination complaints. The Tribune explains the filings’ potential implications further:
“A federal discrimination complaint generally has to be filed and reviewed before a person can sue a former employer over alleged discrimination. The EEOC can issue an aggrieved employee a notice of the right to sue the employer or, in rare cases, the agency can sue the employer on the employee’s behalf.
“The success or failure of Collette’s claim will likely turn on what’s called the ‘ministerial exception’ to anti-discrimination law, legal experts said. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that religious institutions have broad latitude in hiring and firing people whose jobs include religious roles.”
That case, EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor, expanded the ministerial exemption beyond clergy without laying out clear guidelines. Whether or not Collette’s role as the parish’s music director is considered ministerial would be have to be adjudicated in any potential litigation. Though the former church worker has expressed a desire to return to his job previously, this recent legal action is aimed at “change and justice” and he told Crux:
” ‘My goal is not just to continue a career in the community that I love…Directing both worship and the music ministry, it is truly my vocation. It is who I am, and it saddens me to have this integral part of my life taken away because I have chosen to enter into a marriage…’ “
Regardless of the legal outcome of this case, Collette’s firing and those LGBT-related employment disputes which have lead to than 40 church workers losing their jobs since 2008 cause tremendous pastoral damage. A town hall at Holy Family Parish four months ago drew hundreds, almost all in support of the gay music director, who received a standing ovation. Several volunteers resigned from the parish in protest of the firing. One parishioner spoke about the pastoral harm, saying, “Everybody was welcome…That’s become a lie.”
The Chicago archdiocese is under new leadership with Archbishop Cupich, who has signaled his willingness to dialogue and respect differences in the church. He can start exemplifying this willingness by meeting with Collette and working towards a moratorium on firing people for LGBT-related issues.
In a related note, another fired church worker, Jamie Moore, has decided not to sue Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
To read more about Colin Collette’s case and all Bondings 2.0‘s coverage of these church worker disputes visit the “Employment Issues” category to the right. For a full listing of those disputes made public since 2008, click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry