Colleen Simon, a former employee of a Catholic food pantry in Kansas City, Missouri, was fired earlier this year by her religious superiors because she is gay. Now Simon is fighting back, suing the diocese and claiming that her bosses were aware of her sexual orientation long before she was let go.
Simon, a former director of a ministry that feeds homeless people and operates out of St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City, made headlines in May when her Catholic bosses terminated her position after her marriage to a woman was publicly revealed in a local magazine story. The article praised the humanitarian work of Simon and her wife, Donna — who is also a local Lutheran pastor. However, the Catholic diocese saw Simon’s public admission of homosexuality as a violation of their religious beliefs, and promptly asked her to resign.
After taking time to cope with the initial shock of losing her job, Simon is now formally charging the diocese and its bishop, Bishop Robert Finn, with “fraudulent inducement,” arguing that her firing was both wrong and manipulative. She says the church only fired her because her sexuality became public knowledge, not because it inherently conflicted with Catholic beliefs. Simon claims that she asked church authorities if being gay would disqualify her when applying for the “Director of Social Ministries” position, and was told her marriage to Donna wouldn’t “be a problem.” She reportedly received similar assurances from the pastors who interviewed her for the job, and notes that her wife even attended a fund raiser at the food pantry and met many of Simon’s fellow staffers.
“I file this lawsuit today with reluctance, and after exhausting all attempts at reasons,” Simon wrote in a press release. “It is still my greatest desire to return to my position and to serve the parishioners and those at the margins in the surrounding society.”
Simon is asking the diocese to reinstate her as director with full back pay and damages, a request that has very real implications for her quality of life: Simon celebrated her three-year anniversary of being cancer-free this past November, but many of her treatment bills still need to be paid off.
Her lawsuit primarily revolves around the claim of being coerced into taking a position under false pretenses, but it also draws attention to the legal fuzziness surrounding the right of faith institutions to pick and choose who they hire. Religious groups retain the ability to discriminate in some instances because of the so-called “ministerial exception,” a legal precedent allowing faith-based entities to skirt anti-discrimination laws when filling ministerial positions. (For non-religious employees, it is legal in 28 states to fire someone for their sexual orientation.) Yet Simon’s own religious beliefs challenge most traditional theological qualifications for a “minister.” Although she was raised Catholic, Simon now identifies as a Lutheran, a protestant denomination that formed because its founder, Martin Luther, claimed significant theological differences with the Catholic church. In fact, massive amounts of blood have been spilled between Lutherans and Catholics over the years, and though the two groups are no longer at each other’s throats, their theological eccentricities remain significant. Yet it was Simon’s sexuality — not her Lutheran beliefs — that the church cited when terminating her position, implying that being anti-gay is somehow more theologically important to being Catholic than religious debates that date back to the Protestant Reformation.
Simon’s story also lands in the middle of growing national debate over the right of faith-based organizations to discriminate. As President Barack Obama prepares to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people when hiring, progressive and conservative religious groups are sparring over whether the order should include an exemption for faith-based institutions that do not fully embrace homosexuality. Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities are among those pushing for the exemption.