In the past couple of weeks the hot topic in downtown Philly has shifted. Most now are not asking for tips on how to leave our apartments and get to our jobs when Pope Francis visits from September 22nd to 25th for the World Meeting of Families -- along with an expected 1.5 million people.
There's a new topic, and it is a hot one: Will Pope Frances support Archbishop Charles J. Chaput or dismissed teacher, Margie Winters and the many parents and students who support her? Please read on:
On June 22, prior to the Supreme Court's June 26 5-4 decision that same sex marriage is a constitutional right, Nell Stetser, the principal of Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, a Philly suburb, fired Margie Winters, the school's well respected and admired director of religious education, for being in a same-sex marriage. According to Winters, the school knew about her marriage since she was hired in 2007. The marriage took place in Boston seven years before a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania's 18-year-old law banning gay marriage, calling it unconstitutional.
On July 9, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that at the school Winters had been advised by Stetser to keep "a really low profile" about her relationship. The faculty could know the truth, but such knowledge was not to be shared with parents. To quote Winters: "So that's what I've done. I've never been open. And that's been hard."
Winters further explained that events leading to her firing began with a disagreement with a parent, Megan Schreiber, who wanted her to select a text that focused on marriage, sexuality and the body, "Theology of the Body," taken from 128 talks given by Pope John Paul II from 1979 to 1984. Winters refused, believing that her elementary school students were too young for the material, and that parents who wished could discuss it with them at home. Schreiber, whose family has left the school, then took her complaints about Winters' marriage to the school's principal and trustees. She said that another parent, whom she did not name, took complaints to the Archdiocese.
Winters was fired on June 22 after she refused to resign. In a carefully worded email written in early July Nell Stetser informed parents that Winters would not be coming back in September for a ninth year at the school. The principal praised Winters for her "amazing contributions," but continued, "In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings."
The Archbishop and all Archdiocese reps have emphatically stated that the decision to fire Margie Winters was made by the Sisters of Mercy, who run the school and that the Archdiocese has had nothing to do with it. In another carefully worded statement, a letter, Sister Patricia Vetrano, who leads the Sisters, explained: "At its very core Waldron Mercy Academy is a Catholic elementary school sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, who are responsible for ensuring that the school consistently follows the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in terms of that formation and religious education." That letter was sent just hours after Charles Chaput praised the firing and expressed gratitude to the Sisters and their Board for "character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon." In his words,"There's nothing complicated or controversial in this. It's a simple matter of honesty."
The Archbishop's sentiments were not exactly in sync with the words of Pope Francis on June 26 in Vatican City when he met with organizers of the upcoming Meeting of Families gathering. There Chaput heard Pope Francis emphasize the "vital responsibility to maintain and protect the bond of marriage." But he also heard these words: "For those who enter so-called irregular situations...Let us ask the Lord for a strong faith to see with his eyes the reality of family life and for a deep love to approach all families with his merciful heart."
Nor was it the tone taken in the Archbishop's June 6 weekly column, where he attacked the "abuse of judicial power" of our highest court and wrote, "...the last thing we need from religious - including Catholic - leaders in the face of this profoundly flawed Supreme Court decision is weakness or ambiguity."
Chaput's words have not been viewed as Gospel by the Waldron community. A fund to help Winters and her wife financially has raised over 15 thousand dollars. Winters' supporters have held a prayer vigil and some have withheld September tuition payments, claiming that if this decision is not reversed they will find another school for their children. In order to support the couple and brainstorm together, about 200 parents met recently at the hip Philly restaurant, Jack's Firehouse, owned by Nancy Houston, who has children at Waldron Mercy.
Still, all here are painfully aware of a similar situation in our area which occurred on December 6, 2013, when teacher, Michael Griffin whose relationship with his partner was well known, was fired from a Catholic School, Holy Ghost, in New Jersey. Holy Ghost's president, Reverend James McCloskey, fired Griffin due to an e-mail he received from the teacher which mentioned that he was applying for a New Jersey marriage license. The expression of support from parents and teachers and the Facebook page rich with praise did nothing to alter the decision. To quote Rita C. Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, as well as the Philadelphia chapter representing teachers at archdiocesan schools (which Waldron Mercy is not), "If they're going to to be considered a Catholic school, they've got to practice what they preach. Once it became public, I don't know that there was anything else they could have done." Or in Griffin's words, "Haven't people learned their lesson working in Catholic schools? (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 17, 2015)
In Philadelphia, however, there are legalities to consider: Lower Merion Township, where the Waldron Mercy Academy is located, has an antidiscrimination ordinance, which includes sexual orientation. Further, religious institutions are tax-exempt unless they are "supported in whole or in part by government appropriations." Waldron Mercy's website states that it has received $270,000 in the last two years from the State's Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, and since 2005 70 students have attended under an Educational Improvement Tax Credit. According to State Senator Daylin Leach, who represents the School's area, "...they've received a good bit of money from the State (which) might override the religious exemption..." (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 2015).
The late September World Meeting of Families week long event will include discussions on sexual orientation and the Supreme Court's June 26 decision. We already know what Archbishop Chaput has to say on these topics. The hope on the streets of Philadelphia is that the Pope's words will be worth both the wait and the mobs.