In June, Pennsylvania Catholic schoolteacher Margie Winters was fired for being a lesbian, sparking controversy after some parents discovered she had been married to another woman for eight years. Her termination triggered an outpouring of support from students, parents, and the local community, who helped her petition for reinstatement at Waldron Mercy Academy. But vindication for Winters — who taught religious studies and remains Catholic — seemed a long way off, as the Catholic Church still refers to homosexual relationships as “objectively disordered.” Frustrated, she told reporters she would “love to get the ear of the pope” during his visit to the U.S., a near-impossible prospect given the crowds of people who typically flock to the pontiff.
But in a surprising twist, Winters found out this week that she might just get that chance: She has been invited to the White House to meet the pope.
According to the Associated Press, Winters was officially asked to attend the welcoming party by the Human Rights Campaign, joining a slate of pro-LGBT religious dignitaries such as Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop; Mateo Williamson, former co-head of the Catholic LGBT organization Dignity USA; and Aaron Ledesma, an openly gay Catholic blogger.
Some officials within the Vatican have reportedly voiced unease with including LGBT representatives in the reception, worried that photos of Pope Francis with inclusive people of faith might be “interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.” Invited guests such as Gene Robinson have expressed surprise that Francis would balk at the possible meetings, since the pontiff has met with gay and transgender people several times during his papacy and famously responded to a question about gay priests by saying “who am I to judge?” However, neither the White House nor the Vatican has officially rescinded any invites.
Winters’ presence at the White House shines a spotlight on the growing issue of Catholic employees fired for being openly LGBT, a practice that has become increasingly common as the United States embraces LGBT rights. Several teachers, church workers, and diocesan employees have lost their jobs in recent years when Catholic employers took umbrage with their sexual orientation, sparking several large, ongoing protests and demonstrations among community members.
Church officials typically justify the firings by pointing to the so-called “ministerial exception,” a legal provision that allows religious institutions exemption from nondiscrimination policies when they hire and fire people for positions they claim to be “ministerial.” The exception traditionally applied only to clergy, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case expanded the definition to include virtually anyone a religious organization deems to be a “minister,” granting them broad powers to discriminate in hiring.
A photo-op with Winters and Francis would a bit awkward for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the religious group ultimately responsible for firing her. The Archdiocese is hosting this week’s World Meeting of Families, a large Catholic conference which the pope will also attend, but has barred pro-LGBT groups from speaking and invited several presenters who promote ex-gay therapy.