The former music director for an Illinois church is suing the parish for dismissing him from his position of 17 years.
Colin Collette says he was fired after announcing his engagement to his male partner. Though same-sex marriages are legal in Illinois, Roman Catholic church officials tend to take a hardline stance on the issue of same-sex relationships. What's more, Collette's attorney says the parish has known for years that Collette is gay and only fired him once his intent to wed became public.
Holy Family Parish, located in the Chicago suburb of Inverness, dropped Collette from his longtime role in July, shortly after he posted on Facebook that he was engaged to marry his partner, William Nifong. Collette told local outlet the Daily Herald that Holy Family's Pastor Terry Keehan spoke with him and encouraged him to resign. But Collette said he declined to step down and instead was let go the next day.
Collette, a self-described lifelong Catholic, later partnered with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Cook County Human Rights Commission and on Dec. 4 filed a federal discrimination complaint against the parish and its pastor.
Kerry Lavelle, Collette's attorney, said the difference between Collette's case and other cases where the courts have ruled in favor of the church is that Collette ostensibly was terminated for announcing his marriage plans, not merely because his employer found out he is gay. The parish already knew about Collette's sexual orientation, according to Lavelle.
"That's a marriage that is rightfully allowable under the law now," Lavelle told The Huffington Post, referring to the Illinois law that took effect in June and officially allows same-sex marriages. "In the other cases, people weren't fired for getting married, they were fired for being gay. And [Holy Family] has known for years that Colin is gay."
Lavelle is hoping the state's same-sex marriage law will carry more weight in the case than the Catholic church's oft-used defense of "ministerial exception" to workplace discrimination laws. (In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that religious employers had “ministerial exception” under the First Amendment, meaning they could discriminate against their employees without any court review if the employee has “a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.”)
"Maybe [the church] will argue that he's being fired for being gay," Lavelle added. "But if they do say that, they've waited 17 years to announce it."
Collette himself has told local media that Holy Family knew about his sexual orientation prior to the marriage announcement. Parishioner Gina Groberski told the Chicago Tribune that it wasn't much of a secret. "[I]t's not like he hid it," she said.
In a statement Thursday, Collette said he wants be reinstated, calling the job an "integral part of my life."
My goal is not just to continue a career in a community I love. Directing both worship and the music ministry 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, as is my right under Illinois law.
I look forward to a resolution of the issue, and I hope in addition to being allowed to return to my ministry, that perhaps I can open the door for other women and men the church has chosen to exclude.
Lavelle said Collette's case, if it goes to trial, will be unique among other discrimination suits of this nature.
"We did our diligence and we don’t know of a similar type case, and we can’t find one," Lavelle said. "I think we’re going to embark on some new ground."
Neither Pastor Keehan nor a representative of Holy Family was available to comment. Bishop Blase Cupich, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was not available, either. A statement sent to HuffPost from the archdiocese said it had not seen the complaint filed by Collette.
Holy Family has until Jan. 2 to respond to the lawsuit.
H/T Chicago Tribune