Margie Winters, an eight-year veteran of the Waldron Mercy Academy, was let go from the school for having a wife. (Photo: Facebook)
Outraged parents, students, and other community members are rallying around a beloved teacher and supervisor, Margie Winters, who was fired from a Pennsylvania Catholic elementary school for being married to a woman.
Winters, an eight-year veteran at the private Waldron Mercy Academy, in Philadelphia suburb Merion Station, was told her contract would not be renewed after at least two parents discovered that she had a wife — of seven years, something Winters was open about with the administration. Those parents complained to the school and local Archdiocese, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Winters was reportedly first asked to resign, in late June, but refused. She was let go just days before the recent landmark Supreme Court decision granting full marriage equality across the nation.
“That was such a mixed day,” Winters tells Yahoo Parenting. She explains that the school administration had always known about her relationship with wife Andrea Vettoria, a nurse practitioner who serves the homeless population, and that when a parent raised the issue to the Archidiocese, principal Nell Stetser, “my friend,” was “very broken up about it.”
Still, though she recognized the difficult position of the school, Winters was clear about not resigning. “I couldn’t resign, because it would’ve meant that what the parent was implying was true — that I am not worthy and should not be in a position of supervising teachers or advising children. And that’s not true.”
While most employees of religious organizations are still protected by federal, state, and local non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation, such religious institutions are often granted leeway, depending on funding sources and other details, according to Lambda Legal, a national equality organization. The situation at Mercy was not immediately clear.
Regardless, on the Friday of July 4th weekend, Stetser informed parents that Winters, who was the director of religious education and outreach, would no longer be with the school by sending out an email — which both praised Winters for her “amazing contributions” and noted that her personal life is in conflict with the school’s beliefs. “In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings,” she wrote in the email, a copy of which was forwarded to Yahoo Parenting, “but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”
Stetser added, “I realize some disagree with my decision. I believe, however, I have acted in the best interest of the Waldron Mercy community and preserved our heritage as a Catholic school. We are not alone in this plight. My hope is the pain we experience today adds to the urgency of engaging in an open and honest discussion about this and other divisive issues at the intersection of our society and our Church.”
Stetser provided Yahoo Parenting with the following statement: “I cannot discuss a specific personnel matter. The primary consideration that guided my decision-making process was to sustain the Catholic identity of Waldron Mercy Academy. For the privilege of calling ourselves Catholic, we adhere to the teachings of the Church.”
Of Stetser’s ultimate decision, which was made under advisement from the board and the Sisters of Mercy, she says, “I believe there was such pressure that she felt in making the decision that she felt she had no other choice.”
Nancy Houston, the mom of an incoming sixth grader, tells Yahoo Parenting that parents felt “shock on so many levels” upon receiving the news about Winters’ firing. On Wednesday evening, Houston hosted a gathering and brainstorming session for nearly 200 upset parents and school alumni (and a couple of fellow Waldron teachers) at her Philadelphia restaurant, Jack’s Firehouse. “So many of us spent the whole weekend being upset, we had to come together,” she says. “This is not something we expected from Waldron.”
Part of what makes the school so beloved by its community, Houston explains, is that it’s religious but independent, and not diocesan. “So we’re people who are Catholic but have different, or more open-minded, beliefs,” she says. “There are gay families, there’s a civil-rights attorney — these are progressive people. And it was appalling to many of us that Margie’s lifestyle was the reason for her firing… We’re not going to let them take our school — this is not representative [of us].”
At the meeting, Houston says, people were given a forum in which to express their “shame, anger, and fear” over the situation at their school; they also shared glowing stories about Winters and brainstormed over where they could go from here as a united front. And when Winters walked in with her wife, Houston adds, “she received a very emotional standing ovation — it was like a giant hug in that room.”
In addition to the in-person rallying, supporters created a Stand with Margie Facebook page on Tuesday, which already has more than 6,000 likes. And a new GoFundMe page, noting that the fired teacher “embodies the Mercy spirit,” has already raised more than $4,000 to help Winters defray “any costs involved with the loss of her job.”
Winters says the outpouring of support has been “amazing.” And while they’ve felt their share of anger since the whole situation began, behind closed doors, in late May, they now feel motivated to work toward change, Vettoria tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s not about Margie, it’s not about us — it’s about the Church. I feel total resolve that this has to change,” she says, noting that they even hope to meet with Pope Francis when he head to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families gathering in September.
Stories like Winters’ have come at a steady clip over the past couple of years, most recently and notably in Nebraska, where English teacher Matthew Eledge was fired from Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha over his engagement to his boyfriend, drawing a mass of supporters. And in Des Moines, Iowa, substitute teacher Tyler McCubbin was denied a full-time job at Dowling Catholic High School after administrators discovered through his Facebook page that he was gay and engaged to be married; that move also caused an outcry from students and parents.
The national Human Rights Campaign weighed in on the firing of Winters on Wednesday with a statement from Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, the director of Latino/a and Catholic initiatives, on its website. “This sends a message that there is no place in the church for us, the LGBT faithful — even in places like Waldron Mercy, where inclusion and compassion seem to have been a hallmark,” she said.
That message harms not only the fired teachers, but the students who look to them as role models, notes Jim Smith, associate director of Dignity USA, a Catholic-LGBT advocacy and support organization. “I think it’s a tremendous disservice to students, as many of these fired teachers have been well loved and well respected,” Smith tells Yahoo Parenting. “If their role model who they respect and love is being fired for who they are and who they love, then for students who are LGBT or questioning their orientation, it sends a message that they are not safe in any Catholic institution themselves.”
And that, he notes, is flawed to the core. “It’s because of our Catholic faith that we believe as we do — because of our faith in Jesus, who was particularly drawn to those who were marginalized,” Smith notes of Dignity USA adherents. “Also it’s because of the Church’s [sacrament] that God’s presence is alive wherever love dwells. That teaching is as old as the Church itself.”