A former campus minister at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, is suing the school for workplace discrimination and harassment based on actions she experienced after marrying her same-gender spouse.
Noel Koenke, the former director of music for Campus Ministry at the Jesuit university, filed suit in October alleging workplace discrimination based on her sexual orientation. Koenke, who had openly identified as lesbian throughout her hiring process and subsequent seven-year tenure, reluctantly resigned in 2017, citing work conditions that made it impossible for her to continue in her role.
Koenke recounted to The Hawk, Saint Joseph’s student newspaper, that her sexuality only became an issue weeks before her 2013 wedding. At that time, the director of Campus Ministry suggested Koenke “exercise discretion” about her upcoming wedding and her sexuality in general. Koenke interpreted this suggestion from her supervisor as a directive to remain in the closet at work.
In a column in the National Catholic Reporter, Koenke recalls that being told to alter her Facebook page, keep her sexuality silent, and not publicly acknowledge her marriage took a toll on her psychological and spiritual well-being. In the summer of 2013, Koenke attempted to end her life in part because of the stress of working under such conditions. She wrote:
“Being asked to discreetly hide my most authentic human relationship wounded me more deeply than I could have ever imagined.”
Being a campus minister and liturgist, denying part of her authentic self seemed a contradiction to her. She was entrusted by the university to care for and affirm students in their authentic, intersectional totality, but could not affirm her own. Koenke says that she thought she could do just that for a while:
“As a liturgist, I wanted to give them the experience of a radically loving and accepting church–the church I desired but didn’t experience.”
After filing a formal complaint to the university’s Office of Human Relations in 2013, Koenke was told that in the context of her ministerial role, her marriage to her same-gender partner presented a direct conflict with Catholic teaching, which she was required to uphold.
The University Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation condemns “harassment on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.” While Koenke was provided a copy of the nondiscrimination policy at the time of her hiring, she was told after the fact that her position was not covered by that protection.
In December, the university filed a court brief to dismiss Koenke’s lawsuit as meritless. The university’s main defense is that Koenke’s role was ministerial, so it was well within their rights to require her to be discreet about her sexuality. The university’s motion relies on the ministerial exception, a legal doctrine which allows faith-based institutions to be exempt from non-discrimination laws in hiring and firing employees they define as ministers. The university argues that if Koenke’s case were permitted to proceed, it would deny Saint Joseph’s right to practice its religion freely.
While the ministerial exception has often been used to fire or not to hire LGBTQ employees at Catholic institutions, in this case the university wants to use the ministerial exception to allow discrimination of employees while they are employed. Justin Robinette, Koenke’s attorney, argues the exception cannot not be used that way. He explains:
“The university could have said, ‘We are not going to hire you because you’re gay.’ The university could have also said, ‘You’re fired because you’re gay. What you don’t get to do is hold the position open to a gay person, give it to them and then subject them on a daily basis to harassment.”
Robinette takes issue with the fact that the university knew about Koenke’s sexuality when they hired her—which should have been when the ministerial exception was invoked. Koenke was not fired for her marriage but was subjected to unequal treatment because of her sexuality.
The editorial board of The Hawk rightfully criticizes the university for contradicting its own stated mission in favor of the Catholic hierarchy’s teaching about same-gender relationships. All public statements from the university on the matter have emphasized that Saint Joseph’s University is a welcoming and affirming space for the LGBTQ community. Their motion to dismiss Koenke’s case on the grounds that they are allowed to discriminate based on their First Amendment rights contradicts this sentiment. The Hawk editors, who have clearly internalized the mission of St. Joe’s, offer their analysis of the university’s actions:
“Catholic doctrine is not an excuse to overtly discriminate and harass a person. Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition and our university mission all emphasize the importance of inclusivity… If the university is going to have a mission statement preaching inclusivity and caring for the whole person, then they have to live up to it.”
If official Catholic teaching requires us to harass, discriminate, or fire employees based on their authentic selves, we should choose to govern ourselves by different teachings. On all Catholic campuses and in all Catholic institutions, we should uphold the dignity of LGBTQ employees and follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another as He loves us—with unconditional, self-sacrificing, merciful love.
—Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, February 11, 2020