INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (CNS) — A Missouri circuit court judge granted the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s motion for summary judgment in a suit filed by a woman who was fired from her parish job after her same-sex marriage was publicized.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Garrett III, though, on Feb. 16 denied the diocese’s claim for summary judgment in two other claims in the civil suit.
In the case, Colleen Simon said she had been hired in 2013 as director of social ministry at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City. During her job interview, she told the interview committee and the pastor that she was a lesbian who had entered into a same-sex marriage in Iowa, where such marriages had already been legalized, with the Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of St. Luke Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City.
Colleen Simon said she had the support of all those involved in the hiring process. When a new pastor came to the parish in 2014, he expressed surprise when she told him of her same-sex marriage. She continued in the job, making $37,000 a year, until a Kansas City Star article that April mentioned Simon’s marriage. At that point, the chancery called the new pastor, following up with a letter, demanding termination of her employment.
In his eight-page ruling, Garrett said Simon’s claim came dressed up as “employment discrimination claims against an ecclesiastical entity.” He added, “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.”
“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,” said a Feb. 18 statement from Jeremiah Galus, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the diocese in the suit.
But Garrett rejected the diocese’s claim for summary judgment in the matter of a “service letter” written at the end of Simon’s employment. Simon claimed she cannot show it to prospective employers because it is “inaccurate”; the diocese has claimed Simon “decided not to show the service letter to any prospective employer, and no prospective employer has asked her to see it.” Garrett said the two sides have “recounted two plausible, but contradictory, accounts of facts” in the matter.
Also denied a summary judgment request by the diocese was Simon’s wage-and-hour claim. The parties dispute whether Simon was exempt from the minimum-wage law, whether she should have received time-and-half pay for hours worked over 40 in a given week, and whether the diocese “was aware of the obligation to pay wages as required by law, and willfully refused to do so,” Garrett said. “These unsettled, but dispositive, factual issues are the province of the jury and not appropriate for summary judgment.”
The diocese and Simon reached a settlement over the wage claims and damages she sought, but the settlement amount was not disclosed.