Germantown, Md. (ABC7) — Jeffrey Higgins says he never thought his same-sex marriage would be a problem at his job. But on November 8, his marriage came up during a conversation that led to his termination from Mother Seton Catholic Church in Germantown, where he worked part-time as a cantor and choir member for 1.5 years.
On November 8, Higgins, 29, says Pastor Lee Fangmeyer invited him to his office, asked him about his marriage, and then asked him if he'd resign. "I was shocked," Higgins says. "He told me it had been discovered, that's the word he used, that I was gay and married and would I resign. I told him I wouldn't resign, that I liked my job, that I was good at my job, and I didn't see the need to resign. He told me I'd been an asset to the music program at Mother Seton and that I'd be missed, but that I was terminated as of that moment."
Higgins told ABC7 News that a fellow parishioner allegedly saw him and his husband together in public and then found their wedding photos online and alerted the church. He says he didn't broadcast his marriage while working at Mother Seton, but pointed out that he wears his wedding ring and filled out his tax paperwork saying he's legally married. "Out of respect for people who disagree with me, I didn't broadcast it loudly."
Higgins appealed the decision to terminate him to the Archdiocese of Washington and received a letter on December 7 from Auxiliary Bishop of Washington Barry Knestout. It says, "Those who minister in the name of the Church, whether paid or volunteer, share in the mission of the Church and therefore are to support Church teaching and practice. If someone chooses to live publicly in a manner that is incompatible with Church teaching, their continued work in ministry becomes untenable." It also references that Higgins read and accepted a copy of the Archdiocese of Washington's Employment Policies and Procedures when he accepted the position. Within that document, it says, "'our employees must conduct themselves with integrity and act in a manner consistent with the official teachings, doctrines, laws and policies of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to all other legal grounds for discipline, up to and including termination, employees may be disciplined or dismissed for conduct constituting serious public immorality, public scandal, or public repudiation of the teachings, doctrines, or laws of the Roman Catholic Church.'"
The letter from Bishop Knestout also says "Your entering into a civil same-sex marriage is a public act contrary to Church teaching on marriage and is incompatible with a position as a liturgical minister in the Church. While you claim the freedom to act as you choose, you can recognize that the Church, too, has the freedom and also the obligation to teach and live according to her identity." It continues that, "sometimes continued employment in the Church becomes untenable when there is a potential for scandal that might lead people astray regarding the Catholic faith." The letter ends by emphasizing that as a member of the Catholic Church, Higgins is still welcome in the Church.
ABC7 News reached out to the Archdiocese of Washington and also received this statement:
Archdiocese of Washington Statement on Personnel Matter at Mother Seton Parish
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington seeks to manifest the presence of Christ in this community through its mission and ministries. Those who minister in the name of the Church, whether paid or volunteer, share in the mission of the Church and therefore are to support Church teaching and practice. While those employed as ministers in the Church may claim the freedom to act as they choose, they must also recognize that the Church too, has the freedom and also the obligation to teach and live according to her identity. If someone chooses to live publicly in a manner that is incompatible with Church teaching, their continued work in ministry becomes untenable.
Recently it came to the attention of the pastor at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown that a four-hour per week, part-time music minister there entered into a same-sex marriage, in public violation of Catholic teaching that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The individual ministered in the parish as a part-time cantor, leading songs in public worship from the church's sanctuary. After the pastor met with the music minister and determined that the person had violated the agreed upon terms of his employment in the archdiocese, his employment at Mother Seton Parish was terminated.
The issue, in this case, clearly became not the sexual preference of the music minister but his ability to publicly and authentically manifest the teaching of the Church. The Church's ability to transmit authentic teaching and to pursue its mission effectively depends on its ability to select ministers whose public lives are consistent with its teachings and mission. The Catholic Church welcomes everyone into the Church for worship and calls every believer to strive to live the Gospel.
As this is a personnel issue, the archdiocese will not comment further on this matter.
ABC7 also reached out to DignityUSA, a religious non-profit that works to promote justice for LGBT Catholics. Its Executive Director, Marianne Duddy-Burke, emailed us a statement:
"Since same-sex marriage became legal in various states, D.C. and nationally, over 100 people have been fired or denied benefits for their legal spouses by Catholic churches, schools and agencies. About three dozen of these people have gone public with their storiesThe legality of these firings is currently being tested in the courtsWe and many other Catholics believe that a person's ability to do the job should be the main criteria for employment in faith-based institutions. God blessed Jeffrey Higgins with musical talent, faith, and his sexual orientation. He was fired because he exercised his civil right to marry the person he loves. This is just wrong, and inconsistent with the fundamentals of our Catholic faith."
Higgins says he was born into a Catholic family, was baptized Catholic, confirmed Catholic, and when he first came out, his pastor was one of the first people he told, in confession. "He took my head in his hands and told me that God made me and loves me the way he made me." Higgins says he's considering legal action but hopes for wider results: "My sexuality and my religion have never been at odds before. I'm sad that it has suddenly become so...I'm hopeful that the church I've been a part of my whole life will one day be as open and loving and accepting as I'd like it to be."