On Labor Day, A Reminder to Church Leaders: Legal Exemptions Do Not Exempt God’s Law

Workers 2016“This Labor Day, we draw our attention to our sisters and brothers who face twin crises—deep trials in both the world of work and the state of the family. These challenging times can pull us toward despair and all the many dangers that come with it. Into this reality, the Church shares a word of hope, directing hearts and minds to the dignity of each human person and the sanctity of work itself, which is given by God.”

So begins this year’s Labor Day statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the faithful who read the statement should be forgiven for wondering just what “word of hope” the church can offer when its leaders so routinely fire LGBT church workers.

Today’s Bondings 2.o post draws attention to the twin crises facing church workers: the discrimination they face working for church institutions and having the sanctity of their families impugned by church leaders. The Archdiocese of Newark is the epicenter of church worker justice debates right now, as both lesbian educator Kate Drumgoole and gay priest Fr. Warren Hall face sanctions for following the holy path of living as one’s authentic self.

Drumgoole was fired from Paramus Catholic High School last January after school officials became aware of her same-gender marriage. The much beloved former Dean of Guidance and women’s basketball coach is now suing the school and the archdiocese. Hall has been suspended from active ministry, in part for supporting Drumgoole and other LGBT efforts. He had been fired from his job as the director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University last year.  Later, he came out as a gay man.

Archbishop John Myers, an already controversial prelate with checkered histories on LGBT issues and his handling of abusive clergy, figures centrally in both incidents. Yesterday’s post featured criticisms of how quickly he has dismissed gay church workers while protecting priests against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse of children have been filed.

It became public that Fr. Thomas Nydegger, the archbishop’s Vicar General, said Drumgoole’s position as a guidance counselor “makes her gay marriage and gay lifestyle (whether overt or covert) particularly odious.” An editorial from the Star-Ledger commented:

“Odious, as defined by Merriam Webster online, is ‘deserving hatred or repugnance.’ So what Nydegger said is, quite literally, hateful.

“Contrast that with what Pope Francis said about gay priests: ‘Who am I to judge?’ The Pope argues the first purpose of the church is to proclaim God’s merciful love for all people, and says it should seek forgiveness from gays for the way it has treated them.

“Drumgoole’s firing is the perfect example. Thousands of Paramus Catholic alumni expressed outrage in a letter to school administrators: ‘You institutionalize the kind of oppressive worldview that leads students to bully and verbally abuse other students based on their sexual orientation,’ their petition says.”

That editorial noted the genuine debate over First Amendment protections now playing out in the United States, and said the Church and State issue “is a genuinely difficult legal question.” But it continued:

“Regardless of the legal debate, though, one thing is certain: The archdiocese has acted abysmally. Since learning that Drumgoole is gay, after photos of her 2014 wedding were circulated by a vindictive relative, the archdiocese has referred to her as ‘a poor role model.’

“That’s rich. Countless teachers, parents and students at Paramus Catholic have vouched for her admirable leadership. Drumgoole was once a two-time captain and star player of the Paramus Catholic girls’ basketball team. She had risen through the ranks at her alma mater, and recently been promoted to an administrative role.

“Myers, meanwhile, was protecting pedophile priests and using church money to build himself an opulent retirement mansion, while removing a popular gay priest from Seton Hall against the will of parishioners, accusing him of having an ‘agenda.’ Right.”

The Star-Ledger editorial concluded by slamming the Archdiocese whose “hypocrisy is striking,” and who supported the firing  of a lesbian woman “because of church bigotry.”

There is no “word of hope” coming from Archbishops Myers towards church workers or towards Catholics generally. The Archdiocese has noted direct the hearts and minds of God’s people to respecting the dignity of Kate Drumgoole, Fr. Warren Hall, or any LGBT church worker. Certainly, the institutions shows no appreciation for the sanctity of the work such people perform in service to the church and to the world. Instead, church leaders in Newark and elsewhere create hostile environments in church institutions and denigrate the love and the families of same-gender couples.  More than 60 church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes since 2008.

Thankfully, Catholics can turn to one another and to their local communities for words of hope which help us orient our lives on each person’s dignity and the positive value of work affirmed in church teaching. Nearly 4,000 people, including alumni from every graduating class at Paramus Catholic, have signed an open letter condemning the firing of Kate Drumgoole. Alfred Doblin, an editor for The Record which has tracked these Newark church worker stories closely, wrote these words:

“I reject the notion that the Gospels call for the firing of someone because they have found a life partner of the same sex. Love is not gender-specific.

“This isn’t complicated. It should not require attorneys or theologians. We are supposed to fall in love. We should not be fired for finding something so basic to human survival. . .So close your eyes again. Think of your spouse. Think of how you would feel if he or she lost a job because of your love for them.

“Church officials want us to believe that allowing a married lesbian to work in a Catholic school and coach basketball violates the teachings of their faith. That argument rings hollow. . .The courts may rule Paramus Catholic has an exemption from the state Law Against Discrimination. But the court will be silent on whether Paramus Catholic has an exemption from the New Testament.”

The bishops’ claims about religious and ministerial exemptions when it comes to church workers are not ironclad, however.  Several fired employees have won legal cases against their former employers. An increasing number of positive responses when church workers have come out as LGBT have also emerged. New Ways Ministry tracks such “Legal Victories” and “Positive Responses” in regularly updated features on our page about Catholicism, Employment, and LGBT Issues.

This Labor Day, our church must remember the essential truth pointed out by Alfred Doblin when it comes to exemptions: that civil law and God’s law are not synonymous, and that we are ultimately accountable to God’s law which is about not only justice, but mercy.

The Year of Mercy will end in just a few months, and I still believe that church worker justice should be a central concern for this Jubilee Year. It is not too late to turn the page on this wounding period in church history and, in the words of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, rectify these firings. No LGBT church worker should lose a job because of who they are or whom they love. Taking that step would certainly be a “word of hope” in which God’s people could find life.

Consider praying New Ways Ministry’s “Labor Day Prayer for LGBT Workers in the Catholic Church“. You can read past Labor Day coverage from 2015 (here), 2014 (here), 2013 (here), and 2012 (here).

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

9 replies
  1. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    The Conference of Catholic Bishops and its insistence on “protecting its own” while also insisting that the entire community of the faithful treat LGBT people with disdain makes it impossible for Catholics of conscience to align with them. Everything I was taught and my lifetime as a practicing Catholic requires that I speak out. And it is the hierarchy of the church about whom I must speak against. To fire a competent and beloved employee while hiding pedophile priests is unconscionable. No one who loves God can stand with these misguided men. How exactly do they retain their power over the rest of us Catholics? It is time to say NO.

  2. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    This article points out a particularly egregious practice of some Catholic institutions. But there is another common practice – providing substandard wages and benefits to employees, while claiming to not have enough money to pay the employees just and living wages.

  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Having taught in Catholic high schools for 22 years, the “confusion”*comes when they learn the clarity of the Gospel and the eloquence of church teaching on human dignity and then see priests and laity acting and speaking contrary. That this is being played out in the schools may actually be a good thing because the kids see right through the hypocrisy. *”creating confusion for the students” was referenced in a previous article as the reason for firing a good, effective employees.

  4. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    I am grateful for your kindness toward LGBT persons. Do you believe that there is a substantial difference between marriage and partnership, such that a man and woman (definitions at times blurred) must make life-time vows but same-sex partners’ vows may be for life or not?

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Those are fabulous questions, “miriamtf”! I think the root problem here is that there are faithful, professing and practicing Catholics on the “liberal” theological side of the RCC — and there are also equally faithful, professing and practicing Catholics on the “conservative” theological side of the RCC. Pope Francis — perhaps prudently — does his best to “fudge” these internal conflicts, so as not to alienate any of his diverse (and sometimes contentious) theological partisans. I don’t see any easy answer or resolution to this problem. Our beloved Francis is in a tough political squeeze. The best solution I could propose would be for all of us to extend “Caritas and Agape” to fellow Catholics who occupy opposing political and theological encampments. I believe that’s what Jesus Himself would want us to do. If anyone has a different opinion, please, let’s hear from you!

  5. Neil V. Christensen
    Neil V. Christensen says:

    The last Catholic Parish I worked for refused to pay me a just Salary, I told the pastor I wasn’t returning ( in Feb.) He demanded I sign the contract on June 30,.. I again said no! I was informed by the V.G., that; “You’ll ever work in a Catholic Parish again! ” I had to take them to ct. to get my unemployment Insurance, they were a No Show so I won, and you know, using the good ole boy hotline, I never was employed again. I went to work for the county, had health Insurance, dental ins., retirement, and a just salary. Even the Parish board said, I wasn’t being paid justly ( offered $18,000.00 for a Masters degree with 20 years experience – Grads with no experience in other denomination churches BEGIN at $20,000.00 anually.)

  6. Sean Karees
    Sean Karees says:

    The problem with the pope’s teaching and various bishops is the fact that many bishops continue to “live” in the age when bishops owned their dioceses as “princes”. At least so they think and, consequently, every bishop interprets what comes from the Vatican as he pleases. They mimic to a great degree the local laws of the states of the United States or the laws of European countries separate from what has been established (by the Vatican, the Federal Government, the European Parliment…etc.)

    No one can be sure that what applies in Boston will surely apply in Denver, for example. It is temperamental situations based what local bishops decide.

    I suggest that a controlling body at the Vatican should monitor what is happening around the world and punish bishops who do not comply.

  7. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    Friends: I agree that showing respect for Catholics who differ in their views is a great idea. I am not asking for conservative Catholics to leave the church, I am not saying they are “not really Catholic” (as many conservative Catholics have said to me). But respect does not include glossing over the fact that in the cloak of “conservatism” sometimes lies a disdain for an entire group of God’s children, LGBT people. Respect does not involve being complicit with institutional discrimination. In fact, that is the opposite of respect.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Like other church worker incidents, the firing at Paramus Catholic has caused divisions in the community and harm to those involved. Commentaries have sharply criticized the school and the archdiocese, pointing out that while the school may be legally exempt from state non-discrimination laws, it is not exempt from the New Testament. […]

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