The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese has settled with a former church worker who sued it after she was fired when her marriage to another woman was disclosed in a newspaper article.
Terms of the settlement with Colleen Simon, a former church food pantry worker, were not disclosed. But the settlement came two days after a Jackson County judge threw out her fraud claim against the church but declined to throw out two other claims alleging violations of Missouri’s service letter statute and Missouri’s minimum wage law.
Jack Smith, a spokesman for the diocese, said the church “just decided to settle” on those other counts.
“We agreed not to discuss the terms of the settlement,” he added.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that says it advocates for the “right of people to freely live out their faith,” represented the diocese.
“In our view, (the case) involved a question of religious liberty,” Smith said. “They take pro bono cases that touch upon religious liberty.”
E.E. Keenan and Sonal Bhatia, the husband-and-wife team who represented Simon, said the parties had resolved the case “to their mutual satisfaction.”
“We can say that we are feeling very happy about the ability of an employee of the church who’s been mistreated to seek justice,” Keenan said. “And we feel that justice has been done.”
Bhatia said that Simon now works as a prisoner re-entry case manager at Journey to New Life, a nonprofit social service organization in Kansas City.
The case drew national and even international attention after Simon filed her suit in mid-2014. Simon alleged that she had told two priests at St. Francis Xavier Church that she was married to a woman and they had assured her that would not be a problem.
But within a month after a story in The Kansas City Star mentioned her marriage to the Rev. Donna Simon of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, she was fired – allegedly at the direction of Bishop Robert Finn.
Finn resigned as head of the diocese last April. That followed his conviction in September 2012 for failing to notify authorities about a priest who later pleaded guilty to production of child pornography. Finn was the highest ranking Catholic prelate convicted of charges stemming from the church’s sexual abuse scandal.
Simon’s lawsuit named both Finn and the diocese as defendants. The fraud count was based on the alleged reassurances by diocese officials that her same-sex marriage would not affect her employment.
Simon later voluntarily dismissed the fraud count against Finn but proceeded with the fraud count against the diocese, as well as the other claims.
On Tuesday, Jackson County Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Garrett III, granted the diocese’s motion to throw out the fraud claim.
Garrett said that inquiring into that claim “would impermissibly entangle the Court in matters and decisions purely canonical, since the Court must necessarily examine the religious views and practices of the Diocese in an attempt to perceive the reasonableness of Plaintiff’s reliance on the Diocese’s representations.”
Garrett, however, let the service letter and wage and hour claims stand. Those claims were set to go to trial later this year.
Missouri’s service letter statute provides that workers have the right to a letter from their former employer stating how long they worked, what kind of work they did and why they left the job. Simon alleged that the church failed to comply with the law’s requirements.
The Alliance Defending Freedom issued a news release applauding Garrett’s ruling on the fraud claim but made no mention of the subsequent settlement.
“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,” Erik Stanley, the organization’s senior counsel, said in the release. “The district court was on very firm constitutional ground to reject this attempt to drag the government into a church’s theological decisions – the very line the First Amendment says the government cannot cross.”
Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
KCUR reporter Peggy Lowe contributed to this story.