Missouri diocese settles with food pantry coordinator fired for same-sex union

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese settled Thursday with a former parish food pantry coordinator who sued it and its former bishop, Robert Finn, after the diocese cited her same-sex union for her dismissal.

The diocese and Colleen Simon reached the settlement two days after a Jackson County Court ruled two of three claims in Simon’s lawsuit could advance to trial. Terms of the settlement -- one of the few reached so far in the growing number of LGBT persons fired from Catholic institutions, often after legally marrying -- were not disclosed. A trial was set to begin Feb. 29.

On Tuesday, Judge Kenneth R. Garrett III dismissed a claim of fraudulent inducement -- that the diocese deceived Simon at the time of her hiring by leading her to believe her same-sex marriage and sexual orientation would not impede her employment.

When Simon filed the suit in July 2014 against Finn and the diocese, she claimed she was fired as director of social ministry (later titled pastoral associate for life and justice) at St. Francis Xavier Parish for her same-sex marriage, despite assurances to the contrary from its pastors. Simon told NCR at the time that she informed both pastors during her roughly year at the parish of her relationship, and added she largely kept it private or among close friends.

"There were no pictures in my office. There's no rainbow flag in my office, there's no rainbow flag on my bumper, so it wasn't something that I publicized," she said.

It was only after an April 2014 story in the Kansas City Star’s 816 Magazine, which in a lengthy feature about inner-city revitalization efforts made passing reference to her marriage to Lutheran minister, the Rev. Donna Simon, that the relationship became public. Shortly after, Jesuit Fr. Rafael Garcia, pastor at Francis Xavier, summoned Simon to his office and informed her that the diocese had contacted him regarding the story and he had to ask for her resignation, according to her lawsuit.

More: “Petition to reinstate fired KC pantry director met by security guards” (July 24, 2014)

In his motion for summary judgement, Garrett said that a review of the fraud allegation “would impermissibly entangle the Court in matters and decisions purely canonical” by having it examine the diocese’s religious views and practices as it related to assurances given to Simon by the parish priests and its determination of Simon’s fitness as a church representative. Or put another way, the fraud claim represented “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,” Garrett wrote.

In a statement Thursday, Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the diocese in the proceedings, applauded the judge’s decision as upholding the diocese’s constitutional right to make employment decisions without court interference.

“A church isn’t obligated to employ those who act contrary to the church’s teachings. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this as recently as four years ago,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, referring to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosana vs. Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, which upheld a “ministerial exception” to job discrimination lawsuits brought by employees of a church it considers ministers of its faith.

E.E. Keenan, one of Simon’s attorneys, told NCR that the court’s determination that the First Amendment prevented it from ruling on the fraud claim did not indicate how it viewed the merits of the claim.

“We continued and continue to contend, according to the amended petition, that she was not told the truth going into her employment,” he said.

Outside the fraud allegation, other claims given credence by the Jackson County judge to move to trial involved whether the diocese violated overtime pay laws and whether it properly issued Simon an employer’s service letter, as required by Missouri law. Garrett also ruled against dismissing Finn from the case.

“Our goal from the beginning here was to be able to present the facts of this case to 12 impartial citizens, and have that jury decide what really happened here and to render justice in this case. And Judge Garrett ruled that we can do that,” Keenan said.

He added that Simon is “feeling very pleased” with the settlement and she has found new employment in the social work field.

“I continue to keep in prayer all those who struggle with this issue and pray for the day when all will be embraced by their denominations for who they are and who God has called them to be,” Simon said in a statement.

According to research compiled by the LGBT advocacy group New Ways Ministry, since 2008 roughly 40 employees of Catholic institutions have either lost their positions or had their jobs threatened due to LGBT issues. Of those listed, just a handful have pursued legal action:

  • In 2013, Christa Dias won her suit against the Cincinnati archdiocese, which fired her after she became pregnant by artificial insemination;
  • Also in 2013, Marla Krokikowski reached a confidential settlement with a New York Catholic high school after she alleged her firing was prompted by acknowledging she was transgender.
  • In November, Sandor Demkovich filed a discrimination complaint against the Chicago archdiocese, alleging he was fired from his music director position because of his same-sex marriage. Also that month, the archdiocese denied mediation in a similar complaint from another former music director, Colin Collette.

Keenan told NCR that he and his team feel they were able to push Simon’s case as far as anyone has advanced similar cases involving the Catholic church and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender firings. Even though the settlement averted a jury trial, that it was an available option was a victory in itself, he added.

“We had the right to go to a jury, Judge Garrett told us we would be able to present this case to a jury. We were looking forward to it, but we had the opportunity to resolve it, and it was the right thing to do,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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