In 2014, Colleen Simon filed a lawsuit against St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City, accusing the Catholic diocese of knowing about her sexuality while employing her as head of its food pantry and only firing her when her identity was made public in a magazine article. Last week, a Missouri state judge ruled against her, essentially granting the Church free reign to hire and fire according to its religious beliefs.
Simon had worked in her position for nearly a full year before she was fired. In her complaint, she outlined all of the many conversations she had with the diocese about her sexual orientation and her marriage before she was even hired, and again after there were leadership changes. The church’s various leaders knew of her identity and had even met her spouse on multiple occasions. Her primary allegation against the diocese was not for discrimination but for fraud — that she was repeatedly misled to believe that she would be secure in her employment despite her sexual orientation and marriage and is thus entitled to damages for its termination for that very reason.
But Jackson County Judge Kenneth R. Garrett, III begged off the idea that he could even weigh the truthfulness of the Church leaders’ statements to her. Indeed, he engaged in some impressive rhetorical gymnastics to arrive at his justification that the court simply couldn’t consider whether the Church acted as a fair employer. Here is a sampling of the dense verbage from his decision:
Because also at the very heart of these fraud allegations is the Diocese’s determination of Plaintiff’s fitness to be its representative, such allegations take on the hue of theological propriety, and as outsider, the Court cannot but see through a glass darkly the inherent truth and falsity in Frs. Vowells’ and Garcia’s statements.
Furthermore, although cloaked in the guise of ostensibly religiously-neutrally-applicable fraud claims, it can be fairly stated that Plaintiff’s averments as recited in Count I come more manifestly frocked as employment discrimination claims against an ecclesiastical entity. Lest we dash our foot against the obdurate edifice of reversible error in stumbling to address what are here essentially religious questions, this Court shall instead rely on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to deprive it of subject-matter jurisdiction.
In other words, both choosing to hire Simon and fire her were theological decisions based on the Church’s beliefs about marriage. Whether or not the various priests and bishops who assured her she could have and keep her job were lying or otherwise misrepresenting themselves is immaterial, because as the keepers of their theology, they are free to make any such determinations regardless of the impact on others.
The anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is defending the diocese, boasted the victory. “A church isn’t obligated to employ those who act contrary to the church’s teachings,” ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley said in a statement.
ADF Legal Counsel Jeremiah Galus added, “If churches are forced to employ people who do not follow the religious teachings of those churches, the church will no longer be able to minister consistently or freely in accordance with its faith.”
Simon filed the suit hoping she could actually have her job back. The whole reason her identity was discussed in a magazine article was because of the effectiveness of the humanitarian work she was doing. She did not have any ministerial or theological responsibilities as part of her work in the food pantry.
Missouri offers no statewide protections ensuring that people cannot be fired because of their sexual orientation. If it had, Simon’s story may have turned out differently. In December, a court in Massachusetts, a state that does offer such protections, ruled against a Catholic school in a nearly identical case. Because the school was not a religious organization that required members (i.e. students) to be Catholic, nor could it require its Food Services Director to abide by Catholic doctrine.
If the same law were in place in Missouri, Simon could have sought relief under it and the judge may have had to rule in her favor instead of rejecting her fraud allegations. State lawmakers are currently pushing LGBT protections, but they have so far not advanced.
Garrett did not toss the case entirely. He ruled that there still could be merit to two of Simon’s other complaints: that the diocese did not provide a proper severance letter as state law requires and that it may not have properly paid her overtime. The suit will proceed to determine the outcome of these smaller claims.