Monday, September 22, 2008

Church Employers and Firing of Gay Employees: It Does Continue to Happen

Sometimes real-life occurrences intersect with what people write about with uncanny synchronicity.

After posting today on workers’ rights and ethical guidelines for the workplace, I clicked on Pam Spaulding’s House Blend Blog to read a sickening story that perfectly illustrates points I made in my previous posting. And in other previous postings.

Pam’s story concerns Charles Philyaw, an openly gay organist at St. Andrew Catholic church in Verona, WI ( That is, Philyaw was the organist at St. Andrew until this past June.

When he found himself fired. Because he’s openly gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. Which the priest who hired him in 2004 knew. Because Philyaw told him this when the priest hired him.

This is a story whose contours I know all too well. I know it both from harsh personal experience, and from having seen it play out in the lives of others.

In fact, I happen to know two church organists who are openly gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. I haven’t been in close contact with them for a few years, but during the period in which we were in touch, one worked as an organist for a Catholic church, and the other for an Episcopalian church.

Both informed their employers at the time of their hire that they were gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. The one who is an organist at a Catholic church tells me that, when he told the hiring committee this, the pastor turned to the rest of the committee and said, “You do understand what he’s telling us?” They nodded, and he was hired. To the best of my knowledge, he has not had any problems.

Unfortunately, his partner ran afoul of the Episcopal church in which he played the organ when a new pastor was appointed. Suddenly, he found that his selection of music for Sunday was always at odds with the choice of the pastor. Though he played anything he was told to play, the pastor eventually told him that the two had irreconcilable “artistic differences,” and fired him.

No evaluation. No notice. No forewarning. No provision for his future. Just fired him. As churches can do, and as they often choose to do, despite their moral teaching that workers are persons and not things, and are never to be treated as things.

It happens that Steve and I taught at a Catholic college in the same diocese in which this story took place. We did not tell the college we were gay when we were hired, though we knew that they knew this, because a cousin of Steve’s, who is a monk, told us that he had informed the monk who was administering the monastery that owns the college about our relationship when we were hired. We naively believed that, if we did our jobs well, kept our private lives private, as we had seen divorced people who were dating or unmarried straight couples living together doing while teaching at Catholic colleges, we’d survive.

We didn’t. Our being gay made a huge difference—the ultimate difference. When I suddenly got a one-year terminal contract with no explanation attached, I was informed by a colleague who had been on the committee that hired us that theologians have to be held to different moral standards than anyone else. She herself was, after all, divorced and dating a divorced Catholic man, who was also on the faculty, at the time—but that was apparently not scandalous, though (or because?) the two were staunch right-wing Catholics.

Double standards. Huge double standards. Ones that rest solely on homophobia. Ones that prove the real problem for church institutions is not violations of sexual morality in general, but gay violations of sexual morality.

And the double standards really don't go away even if, like Philyaw, you tell the church-owned workplace that you are openly gay when you are hired. In the absence of laws that protect you from termination simply because you are gay (or for any reason at all, in many states, with no explanation necessary), honesty will not protect you, we have found.

Nor will the belief that good church folks would never make promises and then retract them, or lie to you or about you, or mount smear campaigns about you. Or try to present themselves as the aggrieved party when they have cushy jobs and salaries after they have kicked you to the curb like human garbage. Or use the law—the homophobic law, the employer-weighted law—against you, violating all the ethical teachings of their churches, when it is expedient to do so.

In Charles Philyaw’s case, it appears five parishioners complained to the bishop about the church having an openly gay organist, and his termination was the outcome. In a rare show of candor, one of those parishioners, Jo Ellen Kilkenny, admits that "absolutely, Chuck lost his job because he's openly gay” (

Kilkenny says she is sorry about the loss to the church and the pain inflicted on Philyaw and his partner. But she maintains that he was a leader in the church and that leaders must be held to different standards.

Her involvement in the case began when she received communion from Philaw's partner James Mulder and felt “uncomfortable.” It appears that a factor in the “uncomfortableness” of Kilkenny and the four other parishioners who complained was that he and Mulder, both adult converts to the Catholic church, did not hide their identity as a couple. They attended parish events together and took a very active role in the life of the parish.

(Note: had they hidden their relationship, despite having told the pastor they were a gay couple, when the bishop turned on the heat, Philyaw might well have been fired for having been inactive in the parish. Openly gay couples working in church institutions routinely find themselves in double binds, in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations where their lack of presence can be held against them as disinterest in their job, but where appearing together can be called “getting in the face” of the community.)

Do Philyaw and Mulder have any recourse? Nope. As an article by Doug Erikson entitled “Wisconsin Church Music Director Fired for Openly Gay Life” (url provided above) states,

Wisconsin added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination statutes in 1982. However, churches are allowed to hire or fire without regard to discrimination laws if an employee's main duties are ecclesiastical or ministerial, said Tamara Packard, a Madison lawyer whose primary area of practice is employment law.

Philyaw now works a part-time temp job without benefits. He and Mulder face foreclosure in two months unless he can land a full-time job soon.

And this from a church that teaches workers should be treated as persons and not things. And from a church that teaches that everyone has a right to work at a living wage. And from a church that teaches that everyone has a right to basic health coverage. From a church that teaches that we should show justice and mercy to everyone with whom we deal. And from a church that teaches that anyone who approaches the communion rail is a sinner in need of God’s mercy, who is being invited there by a Christ who invites all sinners to the table.

Philyaw and Mulder say that their faith is now shaken, but they have not given up. They have found a welcoming community in a nearby United Church of Christ.

An old story. A tragically sad old story—sad most of all because two human lives are being so disrupted, and their relationship put through fire simply because of who they were made by God.

But sad, too, because so common that people are tempted to shake their heads at this behavior on the part of churches and church institutions, and do nothing to challenge it. When Steve and I first encountered such treatment and I naively believed that the media would take an interest in the story and colleagues would be up in arms at the injustice, I met a stone wall. A national Catholic newspaper told me that such stories of injustice to gay employees are so common in church institutions that they are not newsworthy.

Which is one reason I keep telling them. If I don’t, if citizen bloggers like Pam Spaulding don’t, who will? Those of us in the gay community who continue trying to interact with the churches often meet scorn from other gay people who think we are foolish or masochistic to keep trying.

But if we who are gay and encounter injustice first-hand from churches and the institutions they sponsor don’t try to hold the churches accountable, who will? And in a nation with the soul of a church, where what the churches do and think affects our entire political process, shouldn’t the churches be called on to walk the walk that they talk?

Moreover, if injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, those who see an injustice done in their midst and walk by without raising their voice court the possibility of being the next victim of the bullies. If the bullies start with the gays, where will they turn next?

Those who stand by in silence have a way of finding themselves on the bullies’ hit list eventually.