Church and State - Employment Law vs. Religious Autonomy - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

In 2014, after refusing to resign his position as music director at the Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, Illinois, Colin Collette’s employment was allegedly terminated as a result of his open homosexuality.

Shortly after laws in the state of Illinois went into effect recognizing same-sex marriages, Collette announced via Facebook his intention to wed his male partner, at which time the parish priest asked for his resignation on the grounds that his same-sex union was “a non-sacramental” marriage and forbidden by the church.

Collette has now filed a discrimination suit against the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The suit argues that Collette’s dismissal after 17 years is in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act, as well as the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance.

The Archdiocese is expected to defend its actions by claiming “ministerial exception,” an older legal framework that gives religious organizations an expanded latitude in hiring and firing clergy members. The doctrine is intended to protect the freedom of religion in the U.S. by exempting religious institutions from existing anti-discrimination laws.

As recently as 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the ministerial exception applies to state anti-discrimination laws, including those that give no special recognition to religious organizations.

In what is arguably the most significant religious liberty decision in two decades, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wrote that “the interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important… but so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

Collette’s suit, however, contends that his duties within the church fell outside of those that would qualify as being “ministerial” in nature. His attorneys assert that although he held concurrent titles of Director of Worship and Director of Music during his employment, he was not at any time responsible for planning the liturgy or selecting the music played during masses and services at the Holy Family Parish.

The case therefore is likely to bring significant attention to the scope of the mistrial exception—specifically two questions: exactly what duties qualify as being directly religious in nature, and moreover, can there be any such distinction regarding employment within a faith-based organization?

Looking back at the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice Roberts contended, “we cannot accept the remarkable view that the religious clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

A concurrent statement from Chief Justice Clarence Thomas suggests that the courts should get out of the business of trying to decide who qualifies for the ministerial exception, leaving the determination to religious groups, stating that “the question of whether an employee is a minister is itself religious in nature, and the answer will vary widely.”

 

Colette, who married his partner in Rome last year is seeking reinstatement to his position with the church, along with back pay and benefits, damages and attorney’s fees.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on where the line belongs between church and state. Does Colette have any legal standing here? Share your opinion with me on Facebook or Twitter!

Carlos Gamino