After judges in Florida lifted the state’s ban on same-sex marriage this week, thousands of employees in Miami’s Catholic Archdiocese got a memo from their boss, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, that read as a warning: watch what you do or say, even after work or on social media, or you might lose your job.
Wenski’s note, after a brief reference to court decisions that he said “imposed the redefinition of marriage,” merely quoted from the employee handbook as a reminder to Church workers of longstanding policy: Every archdiocese employee, Catholic or non-Catholic, from ministerial leader to school teacher and custodian, is considered a Church representative and is expected to abide by Catholic teaching, and any conduct “inconsistent” with that can draw disciplinary action, up to termination.
Attached was a longer, carefully drafted statement from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterating its opposition to same-sex marriage, which it called “disruptive” and a threat to religious liberty.
But amid the marriage celebrations of hundreds of same-sex couples across Florida, Wenski’s note seemed to strike a sour note that instantly ricocheted across the country. Within hours of its issuance Tuesday, the memo was being quoted, and lambasted, by gay rights and civil-rights groups, even earning a rebuke on the website of U.S. Catholic magazine, an independent liberal-leaning publication.
Critics quickly contrasted Wenski’s memo with an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times by his counterpart in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bishop Robert Lynch. While reaffirming church doctrine that marriage is limited to a man and a woman, Lynch’s was a conciliatory message, calling for “respect and sensitivity” in its pastoral approach to same-sex couples.
The apparent contradiction could give Florida Catholics “whiplash,” said Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Latino Catholic initiatives, in a statement that suggested Miami archdiocese employees could get in trouble for posting a congratulatory message on social media to a relative who married a same-sex partner.
In his blog on the U.S. Catholic website, managing editor Scott Alessi raised similar questions about Wenski’s memo. He said Wenski’s message seems short on charity even as it appears to go too far, putting some Church workers in the untenable position of wondering whether to risk their jobs to attend the same-sex wedding or celebration of children or other relatives, or whether to post pictures from it on their Facebook page — even when they may have no involvement in religious work.
The extensive Miami archdiocese, which comprises Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, has some 8,300 employees, includes many who are neither Catholic nor do religious work, such as property managers, administrative aides and accountants.
In an interview, Alessi said it would be clearly problematic for archdiocese employees identifying themselves as Church representatives to champion same-sex marriage, “but the person who serves lunch in the school cafeteria?”
Alessi said there’s no telling how far the archdiocese would go in policing employees’ doctrinal purity, since the memo doesn’t specify what conduct or actions could lead to discipline. But he believes that vagueness was deliberate, he said, and likely designed to quash potential dissent within the ranks.
“Who’s to say they would actually fire anyone for a posting?” Alessi said. “But it certainly seems ominous.”
Wenski, who was traveling to Rome on Thursday, said in an email the policy applies to all employees, regardless of their role, because they agree not to “engage in actions that otherwise contradict the Mission” of the church.
He added, in parenthesis: “Not to be flippant, but I don't think Coca-Cola would look favorably on an employee promoting Pepsi products or disparaging Coke products on or off the job site.”
Wenski declined to specify what conduct constitutes a violation, but suggested any disciplinary action would be carried out with compassion.
“We always try to make any decision in a pastoral light — that is, in terms of an old prayer, we ‘seek not the death of a sinner but rather that the sinner be converted and live,’” he wrote.
The contrast in the focus of Wenski’s and Lynch’s missives, to be sure, appears to reflect a broader fissure among Catholics and within the church hierarchy over the issue.
Wenski, best known for championing immigrant rights, has also long been allied with the socially conservative wing of the Church that became ascendant under Pope John Paul II.
In his opinion piece, Lynch explicitly echoed the less confrontational response to homosexuality urged by the current Pope Francis, who has said church conservative activism on social matters has overshadowed its central mission of serving the poor and providing spiritual sustenance to all congregants.
Many U.S. Catholics remain strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Wenski’s memo also found substantial support from commenters on conservative Catholic blogs, including some who described homosexuals as aberrant and others who say the church should not employ people in any capacity who engage in or support same-sex relationships or marriages.
But that opposition appears to be eroding rapidly. A recent Pew Research survey found that 57 percent of American Catholics support same-sex marriage, with the favorable proportion rising to 75 percent for those under 30.
At the same time, the risks of acting out or speaking out for U.S. Catholic workers are also increasingly clear, some church observers and critics say. Numerous Catholic parish or school employees have been dismissed in the past couple of years for violating tenets on marriage, sexual orientation and other issues.
Those include, according to news reports:
▪ A veteran female Catholic school gym teacher in Ohio who was dismissed the day after her mother’s funeral when a newspaper obituary identified her life partner as a woman.
▪ An assistant school principal in Cincinnati fired after blogging that he believed same-sex partners should be allowed to marry legally.
▪ A male musical director fired from an Illinois church after announcing his marriage proposal on Facebook to a man.
▪ An unmarried teacher at a Cincinnati school fired when she told superiors she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization, which is against Church doctrine.
Alessi notes there have been no guidelines on what constitutes a firing offense by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, leaving those decisions to local authorities.
Some critics say that disciplinary actions that do come to light seem inconsistent, with punishment focused on matters such as sexual orientation, while other common circumstances that violate church teaching — such as workers who are divorced — seem to be largely ignored.
But what is clear is that, in most cases, Catholic institutions have the law on their side when they terminate employees over matters of religious doctrine, legal experts say.
Many Catholic institutions require employees, in particular teachers and school administrators, to sign contracts pledging to abide by Catholic teachings and not speak out in favor of abortion or gay rights or other moral issues in contravention of church doctrine. (The church does welcome people who are homosexual so long as they don’t engage in same-sex relationships.)
In Florida, as in other states, laws don’t protect employees from dismissal for activities outside work, said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU.
“Unless you work for a government agency, the law in Florida does not yet protect people for off-duty conduct that doesn’t affect job performance,” Simon said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous 2012 ruling, also significantly boosted the ability of religious institutions to shield themselves from anti-discrimination laws by declaring employees to be “ministerial” workers. Though the ruling applies to workers engaged in religious duties, some critics have said the court left that determination to the religious institutions, opening up a potential for abuse.
Of the examples above, only one — the single mom who used in vitro fertilization — won a suit against her employer alleging violations of federal law that bar discrimination based on sex, marital status and pregnancy. That’s because, as a computer teacher, she wasn’t listed as a ministerial worker, and her contract did not specifically prohibit the use of in vitro fertilization.
Since then, the school reportedly closed the loopholes by declaring all teachers ministerial workers and including use of in vitro among prohibited activities in their job contracts.
But just because the archdiocese can discipline its workers for straying from the doctrinal line doesn’t necessarily make it right, Simon said.
“You have to make a distinction between what’s right and what’s lawful,” he said.