Catholic coalition files brief in St. Joe’s case

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

On March 5, a coalition of three LGBT Catholic organizations and one Catholic leader filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Noel Koenke, who’s suing St. Joseph’s University for anti-LGBT bias. Koenke’s October 2019 federal lawsuit alleges that “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.

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. 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 August 2013. She was hospitalized following the suicide attempt and received therapy to deal with work-related stress, according to the lawsuit.

In November 2017 Koenke felt she had no other choice but to resign. She’s seeking in excess of $150,000 in damages and a court order that the university initiates LGBT sensitivity training for its employees.

In December 2019, officials at St. Joe’s filed a 44-page brief, urging U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro 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.

The groups and individual that signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief opposing dismissal of the case are New Ways Ministry, DignityUSA, TransCatholic and Dr. Arthur Fitzmaurice. According to the brief, New Ways Ministry educates and advocates for justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, and reconciliation within the larger church and secular communities.

DignityUSA works for respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities—especially gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons—in the Catholic Church and the world through education, advocacy, and support.

TransCatholic is a Roman Catholic apostolate that exists to support Roman Catholic clergy and non-clergy in understanding and ministering to transgender Catholics, their family, friends, and congregations. The organization seeks to disseminate well-researched and reviewed information

about gender identity in science, medicine, psychology, and Catholic teaching.

Dr. Arthur Fitzmaurice is a nationally-renowned Catholic minister and public speaker regarding the civil rights of LGBTQI Catholics. He advocates for full inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQI persons in the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Fitzmaurice served for 14  years as Chair of the Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. He is the former resource director for the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry.

The coalition’s 19-page brief emphasizes that St. Joe’s didn’t have a legal right to harass Koenke due to her same-sex marriage. The brief notes that Koenke never advocated for LGBT rights such as marriage equality while working at St. Joe’s. Additionally, the brief notes that St. Joe’s holds itself out as an LGBT-inclusive university and that Koenke’s rights should have been protected under the university’s policies. Moreover, the brief blasts the university for “forcing [Koenke] to pretend to be heterosexual,” asserting there’s no religious justification for such sexual harassment.

“We urge this court to listen to the voices of LGBTQI Catholics, who understand the suffering of lesbian employees like Ms. Koenke,” the brief states. “We ask this court to deny defendants’ motion to dismiss and to give Ms. Noel Koenke her justly deserved day in court.”

A spokesperson for St. Joe’s issued this statement: “The matter is before the court, and out of respect for the judicial process, Saint Joseph’s University will respond in that forum. Still, it is important to emphasize that Saint Joseph’s is a mission-driven university that is committed to offering an inclusive environment.”

As of presstime, Judge Quinones Alejandro hadn’t issued a ruling as to whether she’ll accept the brief for consideration. The brief was submitted by Leslie C. Griffin, a law professor at the University of Nevada.

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for Koenke, praised the coalition’s brief. “We are extremely gratified to have the support of this distinguished coalition,” said Robinette. “They speak from a position of authority. They clearly explain that there is no religious justification for the type of harassment and abuse my client endured. To the contrary, the coalition notes that the Catholic Church’s love is open to all people, including LGBT people.”