Parents want more answers on firing of Waldron Mercy Academy teacher

     Margie Winters poses for a photograph last month in Glenside, Pennsylvania.  (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Margie Winters poses for a photograph last month in Glenside, Pennsylvania. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Waldron Mercy Academy in Lower Merion is trying to move past parent frustrations at the school’s firing of a teacher over her same-sex marriage.

    Earlier this summer, the Catholic school declined to renew the contract of Margie Winters, the longtime director of religious education. While leaders at the school had known Winters was married to a woman, that information had not been widely know or circulated among parents or in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

    In a series of closed meetings over the summer, the school brought in an outside facilitator to hear parents’ questions in small groups. This week, the school hold a town hall meeting for a larger group.

    Parent Maureen Kenney said the most recent meeting followed previous formats: parents asked questions for the benefit of airing concerns, but the administration didn’t answer questions directly.

    Some of those questions, said Kenney, included how to reconcile firing someone for being in a same-sex relationship with the tenets of the Sisters of Mercy, which include supporting marginalized people and fighting for human rights. Another parent asked whether his family, which is led by a same-sex couple, would be celebrated for their diversity in the school.

    In response, Waldron Mercy administrators shared some of their reasons for letting Winters go. One reason? Winters was the head of religious instruction and Catholic doctrine prohibits same-sex unions. The fact that Winters married her partner was also a contributing factor.

    According to Kenney, who is a lawyer, there is a broad exemption for religious institutions to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals. That left little legal recourse for parents who want to see a change in the school.

    Parents including Metty Vithayathil took other measures — they pulled their kids out of the school. Vithayathil said her commitment to the Sisters of Mercy (the Catholic order that runs the school) and their doctrine of supporting the disadvantaged goes back to well before she had a family.

    But when Waldron fired Winters, she decided the school was no longer consistent with her values.

    “I hope that there will be change down the line, but right now it does not seem to be happening,” she said.

    Kenney and Vithayathil both pointed at a recent example from Portland, Oregon, where St. Mary’s Academy fired a counselor who announced her intention to marry a woman. The school then changed its policies to explicitly add sexual orientation as protected under the equal opportunity clause.

    Winters had initially campaigned to get her job back, but switched over to asking for a wider discussion within the Catholic church about gay inclusion and a moratorium on firing LGBTQ staff.

    In early August, she and supporters delivered a petition with more than 22,000 signatures to the Philadelphia Archdiocese headquarters in Center City to that effect. The archdiocese has repeatedly denied any involvement in Winters’ firing, but has applauded the Sisters of Mercy and the school administration for their actions.

    Waldron Mercy and the Sisters of Mercy both declined to comment for this story.

    Kenney said she and other parents who want something to change at the school are still figuring out what their next move will be. In the meantime, school starts next week with an important person missing, she said.

    “Margie was the nerve center of the school,” said Kenney. “She’s probably more Catholic than anyone I know.”

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