In June, Margie Winters was fired from her job as director of religious education at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania for being public about her same-sex marriage.
“What it was like inside, was like a death,” Winters told a local CBS affiliate in Philadelphia.
But Winters and a band of supporters are refusing to let that be the end of her story, or her teaching career. On Monday afternoon, the former schoolteacher and 50 of her supporters marched to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Center City offices to deliver a petition demanding her reinstatement. She attempted to deliver the hefty box of papers, signed by more than 22,000 people, inside the building, but was denied entry by a security guard.
“Because I’m so threatening,” Winters joked.
Winters has been embraced by outraged local Catholics — and even the mayor of her city — who oppose her firing. Among other expressions of support for the veteran teacher, a group of parents has formed the organization “Stand With Margie,” complete with a website, a Facebook page sporting more than 11,000 “likes,” and a GoFundMe campaign that has raised $17,000 for Winters and her wife. In addition, the petition drive was organized by Faithful America, an online progressive Christian advocacy organization that claims over 300,000 active participants.
“Margie Winters’ firing was unjust and contrary to Catholic values, and she should be reinstated immediately,” the petition, addressed to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, read. “Please inform the school’s leadership that you will not interfere with their staffing or threaten their status as a Catholic school.”
According to Philly.com, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has denied it had anything to do with her firing. But Winters disputes this claim, noting she told school administrators when they hired her eight years ago that she was in a same-sex relationship. The only reason she was fired, she says, was because the archdiocese received an anonymous complaint about her sexuality in June — mere weeks before the Supreme Court declare same-sex marriage legal across the country, which Chaput publicly opposed.
“It wasn’t until the archdiocese was notified that something changed,” she told Philly.com. “You can draw your own conclusions.”
Regardless of archdiocese’s involvement with Winters’ termination, the archbishop has said he supports the school’s decision.
“I’m very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the church,” Chaput, speaking of Winters, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon.”
Winters’ struggle is frustrating for her family and her supporters, but it is by no means unique. Several Catholic schoolteachers and employees have been let go for being “publicly” gay over the past year in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Illinois. The firings have sparked sustained protests led by students, teachers, and parishioners, and Catholic communities in California, Ohio, and Florida are pushing back against local Catholic leaders in their states who have threatened to terminate LGBT employees who have public relationships.
Catholic leaders, however, maintain that they have the legal right to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring, citing a 2011 Supreme Court case that expanded the so-called “ministerial exception.” The legal precedent traditionally only allowed religious groups free reign over who they hire for ordained positions, but now gives them to ability to bypass nondiscrimination policies for any position they deem to be a “minister” — including schoolteachers. In addition, Pennsylvania currently has no robust statewide LGBT workplace protection laws, although lawmakers are introducing bills to change that.
Although the impetus for such terminations is ostensibly Catholic theology, the decision to fire people for being open about their sexuality ultimately rests with administrators and Catholic officials. Last month in New York City, for example, a newly-hired organist at a Catholic church stoked controversy by openly posting about his marriage to another man on Facebook. But while an organist was fired for doing the exact same thing in Illinois, the archdiocese of New York has yet to issue a statement on the matter.
The decision to fire Winters is also oddly timed, coming just two months before a planned visit by Pope Francis to Philadelphia. Pope Francis has not changed traditional Catholic teaching opposing homosexual acts, but famously declared “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests in 2013, and has asked the church to become less “obsessed” with same-sex marriage and abortion.