It’s the same story we've been reading a lot about this year: A Catholic school fires a loyal, some would say "faithful," but gay worker.
The school in question this time is a community on the Philadelphia Main Line extending west out of town. The director of religious education was outed by two parents; one of whom went to the archdiocese of Philadelphia to complain. Consequently, the DRE found herself out of a job.
And to heighten the media drama, of course, Pope Francis is visiting the area in September. The Philadelphia Inquirer story on it all starts thus:
The e-mail left many parents at the private Catholic school upset and confused. The well-respected director of religious education had just been fired.
Nell Stetser, principal of Waldron Mercy Academy, an elementary school in Merion, sent the e-mail Friday to say that Margie Winters was out of a job after eight years…Winters married her wife in Boston in 2007, seven years before a federal judge struck down as unconstitutional Pennsylvania's 18-year-old law banning gay marriage…
Winters said she and her wife "kept a really low profile" about their relationship at the school.
"I actually had a conversation with the principal a few weeks after I was hired to say, how should I handle this," said Winters, adding that she was advised that she could be open about her life with the faculty but to avoid discussing it with students' parents.
So the plot thickens. The Catholic Church’s position on homosexual practice (as opposed to orientation alone) is very well known. Winters, who got married about the same time she took a job at the school, knew she was engaging in behavior contrary to Catholic doctrine. And she’s not teaching something like math or physics, she’s the director of religious education. She doesn’t level with the principal until after she’s hired. I’m curious why the reporter didn’t ask Winters why she wasn’t honest about her background beforehand.
Which brings up a huge issues reporters aren't addressing in this story and others: Why does Winters -- and others like her -- apply for a position in an institution that is committed to a core belief with which they clearly disagree? We're talking about the nature of marriage, which is a sacrament in the Catholic Church.
Here's a personal reflection related to this: A year ago I was looking at academic positions around the country and there was an opening at Brigham Young University. One of the first things in the job posting was that faculty would be expected to live according to the core beliefs of the LDS church. I emailed the department head to ask if this included drinking coffee. Absolutely, he said. Now, I'd love to live in a gorgeous state like Utah but it never occurred to me to fill out the application knowing I had no intention of living according to Mormon prohibitions on java.
Back to Winters: Why did she apply to this school especially when she just had been or was just about to be "married" -- quotes applied, in the context of a Catholic discussion -- to her partner. Most educational institutions linked to faith groups make you sign some sort of statement obligating you to adhere to their beliefs, especially if you're in the business of giving religious instruction.
Did Winters sign such a statement? If so, why would she sign a statement that she had no intention of obeying? And why aren't reporters asking her these questions?
Instead, Winters puts the principal in an impossible situation, but the two reach a private, behind the scenes understanding that holds for seven or eight years. And then:
Still, parents of at least two students discovered that Winters was in a same-sex marriage. Winters said one complained to the school and the other contacted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Winters refused a request to resign and was fired in a June 22 letter from the school.
Winters said she thought the school's connection to the archdiocese played a role in that decision. The school, she said, worried that its "Catholic identity would be in jeopardy."
Stetser said in a statement that she could not discuss personnel matters.
"The primary consideration that guided my decision-making process was to sustain the Catholic identity of Waldron Mercy Academy," Stetser said.
Ken Gavin, director of communications for the archdiocese, said it played no role in Winters' firing. "There has been no discussion whatsoever about revoking the ability of the school to identify itself as Catholic," Gavin said.
The story is getting weirder.
Here we have a principal who can’t keep Winters on staff now that the parents are onto Winters’ domestic arrangements. Then the archdiocese distances itself by saying it had nothing to do with the firing. Later in the story, we learn that the township has an anti-discrimination ordinance that exempts religious institutions unless they get a government subsidy. And then the reporter quotes a state senator -- who happens to be a Democrat representing that part of the greater Philadelphia metro area –- saying the school gets a $270,000 state tax credit. Do we see where this is going?
Certain questions arise. If one parent complained to the archdiocese, what went on between the school and the archdiocese to make the principal take this step? Why is the archdiocesan spokesman denying it played a role? I can see why the reporter assembled what pieces he could and let the reader make conclusions but there could have been more detective work. Was the principal caught in the middle or was it solely the principal’s decision that Winters had to go?
Tacked on to the end is the opinion of one parent who disagreed with the firing. As is often the case today, the story is missing an equally intelligent comment from a parent who agreed.
The story created quite a stir, as it turns out. Archbishop Charles Chaput came out in favor of firing Winters and a mayoral candidate has criticized the school. This sounds like what's going on in San Francisco after Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone instituted morality clauses at four Catholic high schools, only to have eight politicians call him on the carpet.
A follow-up story in the Inquirer by a different reporter had a list of people who disagreed with the school but didn’t have one quote -- other than Chaput’s statement -- in support of Winters’ firing. Business as usual.
Yet another Inquirer story on the fast-growing public outrage against the school quotes Winters as saying the school knew when it hired her that she had married a woman. That’s not what the first article says, so has Winters changed her story? Someone needs to clarify who revealed what and when.
I'm also struck with the utter lack of inside sources in the archdiocese in these stories. The Inquirer has a veteran religion editor, David O'Reilly, who has those all-important contacts among local Catholics. I'm not seeing his byline among the several reporters covering this story.
That's too bad, because the lack of depth shows. For instance reporters should know -- and note -- that gay employees aren’t the only people getting fired. I did a lengthy story for a secular magazine two years ago on women who become Catholic priests and not only were these women let go from jobs they had with Catholic institutions, they were excommunicated. I don't see state senators getting upset about that.
Instead, they are making sure the day of religious institutions –- at least those with views counter to recent Supreme Court decisions –- getting tax credits may be ending fast. The Inquirer's editorial board is trying to hurry that day along. Here is their case for ditching the tax credit program because of the “the troubling fact that the dollars go to schools who don't have to follow the law when it comes to discriminatory practices like Waldron Mercy's.” Watch for the state to take up this issue and watch for the school to lose big.
But just because the Inquirer has made its editorial view known doesn’t mean its reporters should sit back and troll the “I stand with Margie” Facebook posts.
Start digging! For instance, who were the parents who started this all? Why aren’t they willing to identify themselves and take some of the rap? If O'Reilly is on other assignments, Rocco Palmo, one of the country’s most incisive Catholic bloggers, lives in Philly. Palmo, who is known for his abilities to know what’s said behind closed doors in archdioceses everywhere, has been following Francis’ trip around Latin America recently. Once he comes up for air, maybe he’ll have insights for local reporters trying to get to the bottom of this story.