U.S. District Judge Dismisses Fired Gay Church Worker’s Discrimination Suit

St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy

A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a gay former Catholic school teacher’s discrimination lawsuit, which came after he was fired over eventual plans to marry his boyfriend.

After being hired in August 2015 to teach English and Social Studies at St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy (St. Stan’s), an elementary school in Queens, New York, Cody Butler was excited about the opportunity. Butler was a product of Catholic education, having attended Catholic grade school and high school. He felt that returning to teach in a Catholic school, as he wrote in his application letter for the teaching job, was “a way of enacting my faith.” However, after attending a new teacher orientation on September 1, GayCityNews reported:

“[Butler] wrote an email to the school’s principal about the orientation, stating, ‘I am concerned about my position within the diocese and school. The tones of the speakers were strident at times and I cannot tell if I would be accepted. I am homosexual and plan on marrying my boyfriend eventually, and after being told all day that I have to live church doctrine I feel wounded and unwanted. I want to teach the kids at St. Stan’s more than anything, but I put the decision in your hands now rather than at some point down the line. Would I still be a welcome member of the St. Stan’s community?”

After the email was reviewed by the superintendent of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s education programs, Butler was dismissed from his position, and the principal canceled his contract.

Upon his dismissal, Butler filed a discrimination complaint with the New York City Humans Rights Commission against the diocese. Metro Weekly reported that St. Stan’s responded to the filing::

“Butler’s termination was based on his ‘statement of intended conduct,’ rather than his sexual orientation. St. Stan’s said that Butler’s ‘choice to marry another man is a clear and obvious violation of Church teachings’ and that ‘if [Butler] was living a celibate life, his sexual orientation would be meaningless absent more actions on his part.'”

When Butler filed his claim in federal court in June 2019, he claimed that the Diocese of Brooklyn discriminated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers sexual orientation discrimination claims. This interpretation was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 in its Bostock decision.

In a ruling that was handed down last month, U.S. District Judge Eric Komitee ruled in favor of St. Stan’s and the Brooklyn Diocese. The judge stated that the discharge letter to Butler made it clear that Butler was let go because he would not comply with the school’s requirement to live his life according to Catholic doctrine, not because he is gay.

Komitee used the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on religious employment to support his judgment, quoting from Justice Samuel Alito’s ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, which upheld the idea that people classified as church ministers were exempt from employment non-discrimination laws.

Komitee’s ruling went beyond “ministerial exemption,” invoking a broader legal concept known as the “church autonomy principle.” Komitee maintains that the church autonomy principle “is broader than the ministerial exception” and would apply when a religious institution, in this case, St. Stan’s, uses “a religious reason for termination.”

Ultimately, Komitee dismissed Butler’s Title VII claims, writing:

“Under controlling case law, the church autonomy doctrine applies in the employment-discrimination context, as it does elsewhere. And this principle forecloses judicial inquiry into the plausibility of St. Stans’ asserted religious justifications in this case.”

With the Title VII claims dismissed, Judge Komitee declined to exercise judgment over Butler’s state and law claims. Cody Butler and his legal team’s next option is to appeal with the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bobby Nichols, July 23, 2022

2 replies
  1. Charles Jones
    Charles Jones says:

    Isn’t it interesting that the church is the one organization held harmless for committing discrimination and for lack of fairness and compassion – and using “church teaching” as its legal reasoning.

    Reply
  2. Ann Marie Connolly
    Ann Marie Connolly says:

    Yet another sad account of a faith-filled gay man — with integrity — who, due to his honest revelation of his sexual orientation and plans to make a life commitment in marrying his beloved partner, is denied the opportunity to participate fully in our Church/School staffing!
    Do all the heterosexual teachers undergo a rigorous Q&A — Are you engaged in sexual activity outside a Catholic sanctioned marriage (pre-marriage sex, extra-marital sex)? Do you use artificial contraception (officially condemned)? Are you divorced, and absent an annulment, are you engaged in a “sinful” relationship with another partner? In addition to the injustice (lack of charity) of this dismissal of a gay teacher, the opportunity is missed to present LGBTQ students (and they are surely present in any school population — though they may not be aware yet of their sexual orientation or gender identity) healthy role models — gay Catholics are real people, beloved children of God, members of the body of Christ — they deserve respect and inclusion!

    Reply

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