After Supreme Court Ruling, Will LGBTQ Church Worker Firings Still Continue?

Noel Koenke, left, and her wife

Employees of the Catholic Church continue to lose their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes, a trend the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently investigated in an article that highlighted some of the disputes Bondings 2.0 has covered over the years.

NCR’s report highlights several church workers’ stories, as well as reactions by LGBTQ advocates. Noel Koenke, was employed by St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, but a few weeks before her same-gender wedding in 2013, Koenke’s supervisor asked her to keep her marriage secret and unfriend university contacts on social media. After seven years of navigating difficult working conditions, Koenke resigned and filed a lawsuit against the university, citing harassment and discrimination. To read more about her case, click here.

More than 100 church workers like Koenke have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes in the last decade. NCR tells of Margie Winters, who was fired from a Catholic grade school because of her same-gender marriage, and Colleen Simon, whose same-gender marriage caused the Jesuit parish where she ran a food bank to fire her. The NCR report also notes allies of LGBTQ people have been targeted, too:

Cathy Harmon-Christian

“Cathy Harmon-Christian, a theology teacher, was fired in November 2019 from Marist School in Atlanta for speaking up against discrimination and racism.

“’There is a general lack of following the Gospel, following Jesus, and an acute focus on the catechism in a way that is not very intelligent. There seems to be strong bigotry and a mob mentality to go after LGBTQ people,’ Harmon-Christian told NCR.

“Harmon-Christian’s child, who went to the same school and identifies as LGBTQ, was forced to drop out of high school due to bullying.

“’If you send your child to a Catholic school, you should expect that your child would be protected from bullying in a way that is systemic. The other interesting thing is I spoke out for students who were LGBTQ, and I ended up getting fired for that.’”

Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, weighed in on this damaging trend. NCR reported:

“The leaders of the church have basically been putting their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of marriage for same-sex partners. And they are not dealing with the issues of married gay and lesbian employees in a sensible way, which leads to unjust firing,” . . .

“According to DeBernardo, a common factor emerging in most cases is zealousness of some parents or parishioners who take it upon themselves to police LGBT members. Often, when a person is closeted, their identity is revealed by people who go looking for marriage records.

“When someone makes a complaint, [school administrators] immediately capitulate, instead of defending their staff member,” said DeBernardo. He also said that the number of LGBT firings across the country are larger than what’s actually reported in the media. “Some are afraid to speak about their firing because they want to remain closeted within their community. It’s not easy,” he said.

NCR shared some of the fear and caution with which LGBTQ church workers who are stilled employed grapple. The newspaper cited a viral Bondings 2.0 post published earlier this spring from an anonymous LGBTQ campus minister. The post emphasized that even in the most outwardly-affirming Catholic organizations, such as the  university at which the writer is employed, LGBTQ staff still feel the need to remain closeted in order to avoid discrimination:

“’I was told through other queer Catholic employees and those in campus ministry that being out and working in direct or active ministry is not something that even the most progressive of Jesuit schools would affirm, support or see as reasonable for your employment,’ the writer told NCR. As a result, he remains careful about his sexual orientation and relationship status.

“The pressures of having to remain closeted causes long-term emotional damages, say advocates. LGBT members reported isolation, depression and exhaustion while trying to keep their personal life private.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this past Monday means employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is now illegal, what this ruling will mean for church workers specifically is less clear because of the “ministerial exception.” This legal concept, defined in the Supreme Court’s 2012  for Hosanna v. Tabor ruling, holds that religious organizations have a right to select their own ministers. The ministerial exception has been cited as a justification for firing LGBTQ church workers because it is frequently interpreted to allow religious organizations to define teachers, religious educators, and other service employees as ministers.

But LGBTQ advocates argued discrimination, even if legal, should not be the church’s response. DeBernardo points out the church’s religious obligation to care for all of its members, saying:

“Pope Francis stressed on the need for pastoral accompaniment — people who come to church who are not in full accordance with all church teachings, you don’t throw them out, you accompany them. Unless this kind of pastoral practice becomes the norm, we’ll see more firings.”

Many Catholics and Catholic organizations have pointed out the need for the protection of LGBTQ persons within the church, while many dioceses resist change and continue to terminate LGBTQ persons. The U.S. judicial system will continue adjudicating what is legal when it comes to religious employers, but church leaders do not have to wait to do what is just. When will they begin to hear the voices of those LGBTQ persons they have wronged, and instead choose to treat all of God’s children with equal dignity?

Madeline Foley, June 22, 2020

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