June 09, 2017
Colin Collette led worship at the Holy Family Catholic Community for 17 years, but his personal life wasn't exactly in harmony with the church's teachings. Three years ago, when Collette announced his same-sex engagement, leaders at Holy Family had no choice but to let the music director go.
It was a difficult decision, especially for someone who'd been a part of the parish for so long. Still, Cardinal Francis George said in a statement, Colin was participating "in a form of union that cannot be recognized as a sacrament by the Church." Hurt and angry, Collette sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for his job back, arguing that he deserved equal rights in the workplace. But this is, as the Supreme Court has pointed out, no ordinary workplace. It's a church, where members – and more importantly, ministers -- are guided by specific moral beliefs.
The reality is, Collette was treated the same way as a heterosexual would have been for entering a "non-sacramental marriage." In the end, the conflict between Collette's personal and professional life doesn't just hurt Colin, it hurts the church's witness. As the Catholic Church's synod of bishops has said, "We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society."
When the case went to court in April, Judge Charles Kocoras didn't have to deliberate long. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Hosanna-Tabor made it clear that it's the "right of religious organizations to control their internal affairs." In fact, as Chief Justice Roberts wrote, meddling in the church's business "intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."
Here, Kocoras wrote, "the evidence is overwhelming that Collette's positions at the Parish were critical to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church Defendants argue that Collette's position as Director of Music made him a key ministerial employee of the Parish. We agree. As the Seventh Circuit noted in Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, 'Music is a vital means of expressing and celebrating those beliefs which a religious community holds most sacred.' By playing music at church services, Collette served an integral role in the celebration of mass. Collette's musical performances furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants. Therefore, Collette's duties as Musical Director fall within the ministerial exception."
For religious liberty, it may be one of the most important cases the media isn't talking about. Above all, it reminds the government that that the First Amendment wasn't meant to protect the government from religion, but to protect religion from government.
FRC's Travis Weber cheered the ruling, which follows on the heels of SCOTUS's church-affiliated hospital decision earlier this month. Travis thinks Kocoras's opinion is just as significant. "The principle that government should not interfere in religious organizations' internal decision making has long existed in our law -- for good reason. When a religious organization decides how its faith impacts its practice, it's exercising this long-held freedom of autonomy, which is the oxygen of our free society. This freedom is something we must guard very carefully, as it is necessary for our country to continue to thrive."
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.