Until two weeks ago, Margie Winters directed the religious education program at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion.
Officials at the school in Montgomery County have fired her, apparently because of her marriage to a woman. Now, parents of students at the Catholic elementary school and a Pennsylvania state senator are questioning the dismissal.
Questions center specifically on why school officials just now decided to let Winters go, since neither her marriage, nor her employment at the school, are particularly new. Winters was married in Boston in 2007, the same year she started her job at Waldron Mercy.
And others wonder whether the firing could imperil funding the school receives from the state devoted mostly to lower-income students.
In a letter sent to parents on July 3, principal Nell Stetser wrote that some might disagree with the decision to fire Winters. “I believe, however, I have acted in the best interest of the Waldron Mercy community and preserved our heritage as a Catholic school,” the letter stated.
Duncan Busser, whose son just finished kindergarten at Waldron Mercy, said the decision baffled many parents.
“It was confusing because we thought we were different. We thought we were better than [that],” Busser said. “We thought we were in a merciful and inclusive situation, and this proves that our school is not free from hatred that is part of this Catholic church right now.”
Busser said he and hundreds of other parents met Wednesday night to figure out how to respond to the firing. Already, they’ve started a Facebook page on Winters’ behalf that’s gained more than 2,000 supporters. An online fundraiser is approaching a couple thousand dollars in commitments to cushion Winters’ transition as she searches for new work.
The school has posted Winters’ old job on its website.
Busser said he and his spouse are the first “two-dad family at the school.” After Winters’ dismissal, school officials contacted Busser’s family to let them know that their son will not be expelled from the school because he has two fathers.
“Needless to say, we’re not happy, and we’re not taking this lying down,” Busser said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Daylin Leach, whose district includes Waldron Mercy, told reporters on Wednesday that he was concerned about the dismissal.
The school, he said, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding through a tax credit program, thereby the school cannot be exempt from antidiscrimination rules set by Lower Merion Township.
“What the law says in Lower Merion is, if you fire someone because they’re gay, you can’t do that,” said Leach, adding that the rule applies to a religious institution that takes state money.
“There’s always going to be consequences when you have antidiscrimination laws,” he said.
A complaint triggered from the firing would go before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. If unhappy with the outcome of the commission, the case can then be appealed in a civil suit in federal court, said Leach, an attorney.
Leach, D-Montgomery, said the firing seems suspect.
“Seems like it was based on, if I had to guess, people higher up, in the hierarchy of the church,” he said. “It may relate to the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriage], may relate to the pope’s visit [to Philadelphia in September]. It’s probably relating to bigger issues.”