St. Joseph’s University urges judge to dismiss lesbian’s lawsuit

St Joseph’s University said Noel Koenke was told to be discreet about her same-sex relationship due to Roman Catholic doctrine

Barbelin Hall on the campus of St. Joseph's University. Photo by Brian O'Neill 

Officials at St. Joseph’s University last week urged a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit of a lesbian who claims “hateful” pressure from supervisors to conceal her sexual orientation ruined her career, caused her to attempt suicide and resulted in the dissolution of her marriage.

The 67-page lawsuit, filed Oct. 11, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro. A jury trial has been requested. 

Noel Koenke was hired by the school in July 2010 as coordinator for liturgy and music. She was promoted in May 2016 to the position of assistant director for music and worship, according to the lawsuit.

“[Koenke’s] performance evaluations reflected that her performance was commendable and exceeded expectations,” the lawsuit states. “[Koenke] was beloved by the students she served during her tenure. [Koenke] also completed a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Care from La Salle University while [she] was working for [the university].”

But throughout Koenke’s employment, various supervisors pressured her to conceal her sexual orientation, including by altering her Facebook account. Koenke claims the alleged harassment was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by federal law.

The school’s “hateful and harassing conduct” toward Koenke caused her to attempt suicide on Aug. 11, 2013. She was hospitalized following the suicide attempt and received therapy to deal with work-related stress, according to the lawsuit.

Koenke eventually felt she had no other choice but to resign because the alleged harassment “took an immense psychological toll” on her, the suit states. She’s seeking in excess of $150,000 in damages and a court order that the university initiates LGBT sensitivity training for its employees.

But on Dec. 4, officials at St. Joe’s filed a 44-page brief, urging Quinones Alexandro to dismiss Koenke’s case as meritless. The brief emphasizes that St. Joe’s was within its rights to ask Koenke to be discreet about her same-sex marriage, due to the religious nature of the school.

“Saint Joseph’s is a religiously-affiliated employer. Ms. Koenke’s position at Saint Joseph’s was ministerial. Ms. Koenke’s claims arise from Saint Joseph’s requests [to be discreet about] her same-sex marriage, which were based on Roman Catholic doctrine,” according to the defense brief.

The university’s communications to Koenke regarding her same-sex marriage weren’t discriminatory. To the contrary, they “constitute exactly the type of employment communication that is protected by the First Amendment,” the defense brief states.

Additionally, the defense brief claims that the alleged mistreatment experienced by Koenke didn’t create a hostile work environment. “Ms. Koenke alleges a hostile work environment based upon eight distinct events and conversations over an approximately six-year period, none of which was physically threatening or humiliating,” the defense brief states.

Moreover, the defense brief refutes Koenke’s claim that it was reasonable for her to resign, under the circumstances. “Ms. Koenke was asked to be discreet about her same-sex marriage due to its conflict with Catholic doctrine. While this request may have subjectively offended Ms. Koenke, [it didn’t compel Koenke to resign],” according to the brief.

Gail Benner, a spokesperson for St. Joe’s, defended the school’s actions. “St. Joseph’s University did not discriminate against Noel Koenke. Quite the contrary, we treated her with dignity and respect, which is consistent with our mission and ethos,” Benner said, in an email. “Saint Joseph’s is a mission-driven university committed to offering an inclusive environment for all students and employees, including members of the LGBTQ community.”

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for Koenke, said the school didn’t offer an inclusive environment for his client. “Just look at their brief,” he told PGN. “It’s taking a completely regressive stance with respect to LGBT civil rights. How can they say they’re supportive of the LGBT community when they asked my client to go back into the closet? To do this to a gay person is a hateful form of harassment banned by federal law. And the university must be held accountable.”