Are LGBTQ Church Worker Firings Just the Beginning for Catholic Employment Disputes?

Melissa Marti with husband Seth Visser

Are the dozens of LGBTQ-related employment disputes in which church workers have lost their jobs only the beginning for other employment disputes at Catholic institutions based on punitive interpretations of Church teaching?

In the last decade, New Ways Ministry has tracked nearly 100 public incidents in which church workers lost their jobs because they were LGBTQ-identified or a visible ally. A recent story in The New York Times now raises the possibility that such doctrinaire firings and resignations may launch from anti-LGBTQ discrimination to harm straight and cisgender church workers, too.

The story of Melissa Marti, a once-Church-employed dance coach in Minnesota, illustrates well what could happen in a new wave of church worker purges. The Times reported:

“Ms. Marti, 40, had been coaching the Sonics Dance Team at Cathedral High School for nearly 20 years when New Ulm Area Catholic Schools officials wrote to say her contract renewal was on hold because her living arrangement was under investigation. Cohabitating, the email said, ran counter to Roman Catholic teachings about marriage being a moral prerequisite to living together. A subsequent letter offered two options for preserving her job as head coach, a position she had held since 2002: She could change her housing situation or present a marriage certificate before June 15, 2018.”

Marti had been dating her now-husband (as of March 2019), Seth Visser, since 2011 and the couple had begun wedding preparations even before the school district issued its ultimatum. Though not Catholic, she expressed how supportive she was of the Catholic Church, how she never defied Church teaching in her position, and how she even attended Mass regularly with her students. But Marti refused to be rushed into her marriage and resigned as her position at Cathedral High School. Neither the Diocese of New Ulm nor the Catholic school district is commenting about the forced resignation.

Melissa Marti’s story has the elements of LGBTQ church worker firings: an unclear cause for why the employee is investigated, an invasion of privacy, an unjust ultimatum based on appeals to Church teachings selectively applied. The difference is that, in this case, the Church teaching chosen was cohabitation, not a same-gender relationship or gender transition. Whether such an action constitutes discrimination is debatable, and it would be wrong to equivocate between the challenges faced by LGBTQ church workers and their straight and/or cisgender counterparts. But the forced resignation of Melissa Marti read against a decade of discrimination should alarm Catholics of every sexual and gender identity.

An initial move to stymie a new wave of church worker firings would be to stop using a common argument to which many LGBTQ advocates appeal in case of discrimination. They point out that LGBTQ church workers have been targeted whereas employees who are divorced and remarried, who cohabit, who use artificial contraception, or who have children outside marriage have not. This analysis is correct. LGBTQ church workers are targeted in ways their straight, cisgender peers are not. But the argument’s logical conclusion is not one most advocates would support, namely that the answer to this spate of LGBTQ firings is to not discriminate by applying a strict and selective reading of Church teaching for all church workers. In other words, the solution is to fire the church worker who cohabitates or uses artificial contraception as well as the LGBTQ church worker.

Thankfully, winning arguments against anti-LGBTQ discrimination and other employment injustices in Church institutions are easily found. The Catholic tradition is replete with witnesses and teachings in support of workers’ rights. Instead of letting conservative forces in the Church potentially expand the harm done to church workers, Catholics need to practice a new solidarity with those employees who undergird the Church’s many initiatives in healthcare, education, pastoral ministry, social services, humanitarian aid, and more.

A decade of injustices against LGBTQ and ally employees should inspire a wider defense of church workers that includes issues like a living wage, quality benefits, family leave policies, and collective bargaining. Likewise, workers and unions engaging Catholic institutions must make LGBT non-discrimination protections a key part of their efforts. Only by all Catholics practicing such solidarity can we end unjust firings against targeted employees and win the justice that all church workers rightly deserve.

In the last decade, more than 80 church workers have gone public about losing their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes. You can find a full listing of these incidents here, as well as New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBT issues here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 2, 2019

5 replies
  1. Richard Boyle
    Richard Boyle says:

    There is a word, little used now, but perhaps will be used again if this situation gets worse: “pogrom.”

    Reply
  2. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    “A decade of injustices against LGBTQ and ally employees should inspire a wider defense of church workers that includes issues like a living wage, quality benefits, family leave policies, and collective bargaining. Likewise, workers and unions engaging Catholic institutions must make LGBT non-discrimination protections a key part of their efforts. Only by all Catholics practicing such solidarity can we end unjust firings against targeted employees and win the justice that all church workers rightly deserve.”

    I like that. People running Catholic institutions teaching social justice, need to be champions for justice for their employees.

    Reply
  3. Patricia Vasilj
    Patricia Vasilj says:

    In this political climate, anything is possible. I know American Airlines and Marquette University have inclusive policies for their employees. Others are dug in. And nothing has been done to change the wording of the Catechism. God created all of us and imparted His love in our souls. This exclusion does not reflect His Love. I ask Mary, our Heavenly Mother, to watch over our children. She knows first hand what happened to her Son. Please, I ask her, keep them safe and their souls strong.

    Reply
  4. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    To be clear, I do not wish this deplorable church action for cohabitation on anyone. This church worker deserves our solidarity and absolute support. That said, there is a pragmatic part of me that believes it would be quite enlightening if all churches everywhere consistently enforced church teachings and fired everyone for things like cohabitation, children out of wedlock, contraception, etc., etc. The demonstration of the magnitude and cruelty of such consistent enforcement would be so quick and clear that there would be a mass uproar and religious revolution of sorts. And there would also be few, if any, left working for the church.

    Never mind the silliness of targeting cohabitation. If sex is the church’s big taboo sin, cohabitation does not “prove” or guarantee sex occurs. Some people live together for reasons that do not include an amorous relationship. Goodness . . . To be real, even for those married, marriage does not guarantee that sex occurs either! Church pastoral teaching needs to get real too . . . and truly embrace Francis’ words. “Who am I to judge?”

    Reply

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