A Catholic elementary school educator in the Philadelphia area has been fired because she legally married another woman in 2007. This first-known firing case since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality across the nation almost two weeks ago has an unusual religious exemption twist to it.
Philly.com reported that Nell Stetser, the principal of Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, sent an email to the parents of schoolchildren saying that Margie Winters would not be coming back in September for a ninth year of directing religious education at the school. Though this is just being made public, the firing took place on June 22nd, before the Supreme Court’s decision.
According to an article on PhillyMag.com, the principal praised Winters’ professional abilities while explaining the decision to fire her:
“Like you, I truly value Margie and appreciate her amazing contributions to our religious education and outreach programs. Margie certainly has enriched the lives of everyone in the WMA family. As WMA’s principal, however, my duty is to protect our school’s future. In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”
The contradiction of only being able to “continue as a Catholic school” by firing someone who has made “amazing contributions to our religious education and outreach programs” and who “has enriched the lives of everyone” is glaring.
As has happened in other similar cases, what particularly stings about this case is that administrators knew of the marital relationship for a long time, but seem to have only taken action when public complaints have been raised. What kind of exemplary moral leadership are administrators exhibiting when they at first personally accept a person, but then turn against her when the pressure is put on them.
Winters described the understanding that she had with the school’s administrators:
“Winters said she and her wife ‘kept a really low profile’ about their relationship at the school.
” ‘I actually had a conversation with the principal a few weeks after I was hired to say, how should I handle this,’ said Winters, adding that she was advised that she could be open about her life with the faculty but to avoid discussing it with students’ parents.
“So that’s what I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve never been open. And that’s been hard.”
According to Winters, two parents who learned about her marriage complained, one to the school administrators and one to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. A spokesperson for the archdiocese has denied that the local hierarchy has been involved in the school’s firing decision.
According to Philly.com:
“Winters said she thought the school’s connection to the archdiocese played a role in that decision. The school, she said, worried that its ‘Catholic identity would be in jeopardy.’
“Stetser said in a statement that she could not discuss personnel matters.
” ‘The primary consideration that guided my decision-making process was to sustain the Catholic identity of Waldron Mercy Academy,’ Stetser said.”
What is amazing in this case, again, like in many others, is that “Catholic identity” seems only to come into play if a sexual matter is involved. Is Catholicism becoming a one-issue religion?
What may be unique about this case, however, is the possible lack of religious exemption protection. The local township has an anti-discrimination law which exempts religious institutions from it, except if they are “supported in whole or in part by government appropriations.”
State Sen. Daylin Leach, the local representative for the school’s district, said that according to the Waldron Mercy website, the institution has received more than $270,000 in two years from Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program. Additionally, 70 students since 2005 benefited from another state program, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit.
Leach told Philly.com that accepting so much state money might exclude the school from the religious exemption.
It will really be a shame for Catholicism if the only way to motivate schools to stop firing LGBT people is to legally and financially penalize them. Catholic schools should adhere to a higher moral standard of treating people with respect, fairness, and equality.
Not all involved in the school’s community accept this decision. Philly.com quoted a parent who is organizing a response to object to the firing, Nancy Houston stated that the school’s decision is
“not something we’re going to accept quietly.”
“Winters ‘makes kids love religion,’ Houston said. ‘She’s a perfect example of living a religious life.’
A Facebook page entitled “Stand With Margie” has been established for people to voice support for Winters.
And Winters herself hopes that there may be an important lesson to be learned from the publicity surrounding her firing:
“People of faith need to know what is happening in the name of their church.”
Though fired from her job, it seems that Winters is still teaching religious education.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry