Director of Catholic assisted-living home fired over ‘gay marriage’ files discrimination suit

The Obergefell decision has effectively made it “open season on churches, individuals and organizations that understand and live out the truth that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Fri Oct 16, 2015 - 8:31 pm EST
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RICHMOND, VA, October 14, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – Five months after the Catholic diocese of Richmond fired John Murphy from his high-level job at a Catholic assisted-living center because he was in a homosexual “marriage,” the 63-year-old Virginia man has filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

And supporters of traditional marriage are watching Murphy’s complaint closely.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing time and time again is the law is being used a club,” says Brian S. Brown of the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage. “The fact that Mr. Murphy is taking this to the EEOC makes it very clear he wants to change and undermine the Church’s ability to live according to its faith.”

“It’s a groundbreaking complaint,” says Travis Weber, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty. “It’s significant for several reasons.”

Among those reasons is that the legal game has changed radically since the diocese fired Murphy in early April, a week after he began his position as executive director of St. Francis Home.

In June, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision created a constitutional right to homosexual “marriage.” And in July, the EEOC, the federal body that adjudicates federal employment discrimination laws, expanded the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII prohibited grounds for discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

That makes Murphy’s case “unique” says his lawyer Aubrey Ford. “I’m not aware of any court that has ruled on these issues since both of those happened.”

“Everybody agrees that John was fired because he was in a same-sex marriage,” Ford told LifeSiteNews. What’s in dispute is if the diocese had “a legal right to do that.”

Murphy, who variously describes himself as a “lifelong” and “cafeteria Catholic,” told LifeSiteNews that in 2008 he “married” Jerry Carter, his homosexual partner of almost 30 years, but did not disclose this information to the board of the St. Francis Home during the hiring process.

That’s because the board made it clear “that this was not a church job, and I was not working in a church kind of position,” said Murphy, who previously worked for secular non-profit associations. Rather, he was told: “Your job is to go out and raise money and be the face of the organization, to get things donated.”

But shortly after he started, and after he’d sent his paperwork to the diocesan headquarters, two deputies of Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo came to his office.

He thought they were bringing greetings from the bishop – whom Murphy hadn’t met.

Instead, they told him he was “terminated” because he was in a same-sex marriage, and “that’s antithetical to church teaching and that renders you unfit – they used that word – and not suitable to this position,” Murphy said. “I felt like it was a punch in the gut.”

He said when he told the chairman of the board, Tina Neal, after he’d been hired about his “spouse,” she essentially shrugged it off, and that four of the volunteer board members have resigned over his firing. Neal did not return a call from LifeSiteNews.

Diocesan spokesperson Diana Sims Snider noted in a statement that the diocese expects “the employees of the Diocese and its ministries, to uphold and embody the consistent values and truths of the Catholic faith, including those preserving the sanctity of marriage.”

Snider would not comment on the specifics of a “personnel issue,” but told the CBC that the diocese considers this a First Amendment matter. “We are saying: this is what we do as Catholics, this is what we expect of our employees because this is what we believe to be true.”

Ford says he’s arguing that the diocese will “have to show that the position John was in was essentially ministerial. I don’t think they can do that.” He’s also “going to be making the point that John was fired for a status that our United States Supreme Court ruled is a fundamental right under the Constitution.”

According to FRC’s Weber, the Supreme Court’s 2012 Hosanna-Tabor ruling “basically stood for the idea that the government cannot interfere at all with a religious organization’s hiring and firing of their ministers.”

But while Weber admits that Murphy, as an executive director, may not be considered a minister, he says that “even apart from the ministerial exception,” Title VII allows religious institutions to “hire and fire members of their religion for their organization’s purposes. They can engage in what might be termed ‘religious discrimination’.”

What really bears watching is how the EEOC’s July ruling that Title VII non-discrimination requirements include sexual orientation will play out in the case, Weber said. The EEOC could classify the diocese firing Murphy as “permitted religious decision-making in hiring and firing,” or deem it “as impermissible sexual orientation discrimination.”

If they decides the latter, then “they’ve told the Richmond diocese what Catholicism really means, and this is a huge problem,” Weber said.

Government “setting up religious doctrine” is prohibited under the First Amendment’s establishment clause. And “it would violate the church autonomy, which is supported by the First Amendment. Government can’t intrude into internal church matters.”

The National Organization for Marriage’s Brown also emphasizes that churches have the right to defend their doctrine. Even if, as Murphy alleges, the St. Francis Home board shrugged off his homosexual “marriage,” that “doesn’t change the fact that the Catholic Church, and the bishop has the right to say, ‘No, this is wrong and you can’t continue to work here’.”

“When you’re working for a Catholic organization, you’re promoting Catholic values,” says Brown, a Catholic convert and father of eight children, “so the Catholic Church has the absolute right to say, ‘You don’t accept our teaching and are living in contradiction to our teaching on the truth of marriage, therefore you can’t work for us.’”

Brown says that the Obergefell decision has effectively made it “open season on churches, individuals and organizations that understand and live out the truth that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

“It’s critical, number one, that the church stand up for its rights to hire and fire,” he pointed out. “And number two, that we pass legislation that would trump EEOC decisions.”

The NOM is pushing for its First Amendment Defense Act, which has 147 sponsors in the House, and 37 in the Senate. And while Brown says he’s aware President Obama will veto it, “we want to get a vote, and hopefully with the next president, we’ll be able to pass it and that will solve some of the problems.”

“We’ve been saying for a long time that with the passage of same-sex marriage we’re going to have a frontal assault on religious liberty,” Brown said, adding, “People need to step up to the plate to do something about it.”

But Ford and Murphy also seem primed for a fight.

“Personally, I think this is just a fascinating story,” Ford told LifeSiteNews. “What it potentially is doing is pitting the civil rights of an American citizen, John Murphy, against the First Amendment rights of the church.”

  bishop francis xavier dilorenzo, catholic church, homosexuality, national organization for marriage, religious freedom