Lesbian settles antibias case against St. Joe’s University

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Noel Koenke, a former employee at St. Joseph’s University, has settled her antibias case against the university. Koenke worked at SJU for about seven years. But “hateful” pressure from supervisors to stay in the closet ruined her career, caused her to attempt suicide and resulted in the dissolution of her same-sex marriage. She resigned her position in November 2017, according to court papers.

The settlement was announced by the court on May 27, but its terms were private. “I can confirm that the case has been resolved,” said a university spokeswoman in an email. Attorneys for Koenke declined to comment for this update.

Koenke worked as an assistant director of music and worship at SJU and was beloved by many students. She filed suit in October 2019, claiming the university violated Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds. Koenke maintained the university had no legal right to harass her. She requested in excess of $150,000 in damages and a court order that the university initiate LGBT sensitivity training for its employees, according to court papers.

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. In its brief, SJU admitted it urged Koenke to be discreet about her marriage but maintained it had a legal right to do so.

In January 2021, Alejandro granted SJU’s request to dismiss Koenke’s lawsuit, noting that the school’s employment matters with its “ministers” were exempt from antibias laws. The judge also referred to Koenke as a “homosexual woman,” which is terminology that’s discouraged by LGBT advocates.

GLAAD issued a statement decrying Alejandro’s terminology, adding: “The blatant discrimination Noel Koenke unfortunately endured from her previous employer should not be legal under any circumstances. An overwhelming majority of Americans, from all faiths, believe discrimination against LGBTQ people should be illegal. Until all employers, the law and the judicial system catch up to those core values of equal treatment, the least federal judges could do is address people who come before them accurately and respectfully.”

In February, Koenke filed an appeal at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. LGBT advocates expressed hope that a favorable appellate ruling would provide important employment protections for LGBT workers within the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands.

Several advocacy groups supported Koenke, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; the National Women’s Law Center; New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA; and TransCatholic. They said the U.S. Constitution didn’t give SJU a right to harass Koenke.

Appellate papers described the alleged abuse endured by Koenke. “[Koenke] was forced to refrain from disclosing that she was part of a same-sex couple, including by being encouraged and expected to lie about her sexual orientation and her spouse, both during work hours and outside of work,” the papers alleged. “The double-life forced on Ms. Koenke took a severe emotional and psychological toll, and she eventually quit her job.”

Koenke’s attorneys wanted the Third Circuit to rule on whether the “ministerial exception to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution categorically bars all of Ms. Koenke’s employment-discrimination claims against the University, including her [hostile work environment claim],” according to appellate papers.

In a previous statement, a university spokesperson denied that Koenke was mistreated by the university. “Saint Joseph’s University did not discriminate against Noel Koenke,” the spokesperson said, in an email. “Quite the contrary, we treated her with dignity and respect, which is consistent with our mission and ethos. 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.”