A former Kansas City church food pantry coordinator who contended she lost her job because her same-sex marriage became public settled her lawsuit this week with Catholic diocese officials.
The parties did not release the amount awarded to Colleen Simon, who brought the suit against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Her suit against the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn said her St. Francis Xavier Church supervisors knew she was a lesbian and married to another woman, and they had said her sexual orientation would not be an issue.
That was before an April 2014 article in The Star mentioned her marriage to the Rev. Donna Simon of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City.
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She was fired two weeks later, Colleen Simon said in her lawsuit. She sought unpaid wages, fringe benefits, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney fees.
On Tuesday, Jackson County Judge Kenneth R. Garrett III dismissed one allegation of Simon’s lawsuit. He would not consider, he said, the alleged fraud of the priests’ statements to Simon regarding her sexual orientation and her employment status because it “would impermissibly entangle the court in matters and decisions purely canonical.”
Lawyers representing the diocese said that the fraud allegation was the primary claim of Simon’s lawsuit and that Garrett’s ruling signaled the diocese was free to make its employment decisions without court interference.
“A church isn’t obligated to employ those who act contrary to the church’s teachings,” said Erik Stanley, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit legal organization that assisted in the diocese’s defense.
“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,” Stanley said.
Garrett declined to dismiss questions regarding whether the diocese had failed to issue a service letter detailing Simon’s employment that met requirements called for under Missouri law and whether Simon’s employment status qualified her for overtime pay when she worked more than 40 hours a week.
“These unsettled … issues are the province of the jury,” Garrett wrote in his ruling.
The diocese did not want those matters discussed in court, said E.E. Keenan, a Kansas City lawyer representing Simon.
“For over a year and a half, the diocese fought hard to prevent Ms. Simon’s case from going to a jury,” Keenan said. “We feel good that this judgment affirms the ability of church employees who are wronged to seek justice in our courts.”
Simon’s lawsuit asserted that during a May 2013 job interview, she had mentioned her sexual orientation to a priest at St. Francis Xavier and the priest had expressed no objection.
When another priest replaced that priest, Simon said, she notified him of her sexual orientation. Had he objected, she said, she wanted to look for work elsewhere. As a cancer survivor, she needed to maintain her job-related health insurance coverage.
But the priest had said, “It’s OK,” according to the lawsuit.
Simon had said Finn participated in her firing. Last month, Simon’s lawyers voluntarily dismissed the fraud claim against Finn, Keenan said.
Although Simon initially wished to have her food pantry position back, Keenan said, for several months she has been employed at Journey to New Life, a nonprofit organization that assists former prisoners transitioning after incarceration.
“She is very excited and enthusiastic about that work,” Keenan said.
“While it was certainly sad that she had to leave St. Francis the way she did, and she had hoped to go back, she now has moved forward.”