PHILADELPHIA — This month, the Philadelphia-based Waldron Mercy Academy was the latest Catholic school to draw fire for removing a teacher legally married to a same-sex spouse.
On July 3, after the school sent a letter that it would not renew the contract of Margie Winters, the school's longtime director of religious education, the news sparked a furor. Winters is legally married to a woman, and local media provided a forum for critics, who attacked the school principal for forcing her resignation, after two parents raised concerns about her marital status.
But as the controversy boiled over in public meetings organized by parents, ongoing news coverage and online on Facebook, some critics also targeted Megan Schrieber, a mother in the school community, who raised questions about Winters’ formative role.
While media coverage of similar disputes in other Catholic schools has largely focused on the dueling positions of the teacher and of church/school officials, Schrieber’s story spotlights the concerns of Catholic parents who want their children to receive a solid grounding in the faith and may step forward to make that expectation clear to teachers and principals.
Thus far, Schrieber has not discussed the controversy, though her name has been cited by Winters as a chief catalyst in the uproar.
But in an interview with the Register, she explained her side of the story and rejected efforts to characterize her motives as bigoted or unjust.
“We don’t judge Margie Winters for her life choices; that is, indeed, up to God,” Schrieber said, as she explained the views of her husband and herself.
“We do believe we can make decisions about who can form our children in the faith and teachings of our Church.”
Schrieber emphasized that she had never sought Winters’ resignation.
Rather, she got in touch with the principal because she wanted an explanation for the school’s decision to hire a director of religious education whose personal life appeared to pose a “conflict of interest” with her professional duties.
She suggested that Winters’ recent statements have only reinforced her initial concerns.
In a television interview, for example, Winters said she had refused the principal’s request that she resign from her position because Schrieber’s faith-based objections to same-sex “marriage” were “wrong.”
“In my mind, for me to resign means that what this woman and what she believes the Church is saying is true, and I don’t believe that’s true,” said Winters in an interview with a local ABC affiliate.
Faithful Catholic Parents
A mother of six, Schrieber is an active Catholic, who serves as the volunteer director of development for the 2015 Abbey Fest, a faith-centered music festival that drew 2,000 Catholics in 2014, its inaugural year.
Several of her children have already graduated from Waldron Academy, and she had been content with the school. But during the past school year, she said, an issue involving Schrieber’s fifth-grade son prompted her to reach out to Winters with unsatisfactory results.
“At the beginning of the school year, I learned that my son had been exposed to pornography by another student,” Schrieber recalled.
“I called and said, ‘We have an issue, and I believe the theology of the body is an antidote. You should take a look at it.’”
“I sent at least three emails to Winters,” she recalled, and when there was no sign of interest, she decided to teach it at home.
But later, when she told someone else in the school community of her hopes to bring the theology of the body, the important contribution to the Church by St. John Paul II, into the classroom, she was told flatly, “You’ll never get the theology of the body into the school.”
“I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Because the director of religious education is a civilly married lesbian.’”
Subsequently, a staff member confirmed Winters’ marital status and said it was common knowledge.
The news stunned Schrieber and her husband.
“As parents seeking an authentic Catholic education, it seemed like an incredible disconnect to have the main person whose task it was to oversee the formation of our children to be taking an outward stance against the Church,” she said.
Schrieber went to the principal to address her concerns.
“My husband and I never had an issue with Winters personally. This was a bigger issue: a lack of judgment by the school. She didn’t hire herself. Someone hired her.”
The meeting with the principal left a number of questions unanswered. And when Schrieber met with a member of the school’s board of trustees, she sensed anger and some confusion about her objections.
Finally, she tried explaining her concerns in the language of the consumer-rights movement.
“I said, ‘I believe I am buying a Catholic education, and I am not getting it. That is equivalent to fraud.’”
“The trustee said, ‘I get it.’”
The Schriebers received no further communications from the school. They made a private decision to leave Waldron Academy at the end of the school year and never made any public statement about the reasons for their departure.
“We didn’t ask for her to move out of the position. We left,” explained Schrieber.
Only later did the couple realize that their conversations with the principal and the board member had prompted the school to review its decision to hire Winters.
“The first I heard of this was when a board member called to let me know they did not renew her contract,” said Schrieber.
The board member also warned her that some members of the school community “are angry about your opinions.”
By then, the principal, Nell Stetser, had issued the first of two letters to the school community on the matter. On July 3, the principal confirmed that Winters’ “annual employment contract was not renewed.”
“In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings,” read Stetser’s letter, which cited the teaching authority of the archbishop of Philadelphia and her wide consultations with the Sisters of Mercy, theologians and canon lawyers.
When the controversy stayed at a full boil, Mercy Sister Patricia Vetrano, the president of the Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, issued her own letter to parents that backed the principal’s decision.
“As a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy is responsible for adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church in its curriculum and programs and as a public witness in the wider community. Our concern in this situation is Waldron Mercy’s authentic participation in the mission of Catholic education,” read Sister Patricia’s letter, dated July 13.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia
After the story first drew local headlines, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia told media outlets that it had no role in the decision-making process that led to Winters’ departure.
In an email exchange with the Register, the archdiocese director of communications, Ken Gavin, confirmed that it “did not make or influence the personnel decision in question.”
Asked whether Waldron Academy requires its faculty to sign contracts that require them to avoid public actions or statements that oppose Catholic teaching, Gavin said he wasn’t certain if Waldron, a private school, “requires teachers to sign anything like a morality clause, but we have those things built into the contract for our high-school teachers.”
However, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia subsequently issued a statement of support for the embattled school administration and the Sisters of Mercy.
“They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon,” stated Archbishop Chaput.
For now, however, Winters has indicated that she is prepared to fight on, and over the weekend, she appeared on a CNN news program to reject any suggestion that her marriage rendered her unfit to teach religion at a Catholic school.
Winters has repeatedly stated that she informed the school principal of her marriage at the time she was hired in 2007, and an agreement was made to share the news with the faculty but not the parents.
The school declined requests for comment from the Register. But Sheila King, who is handling the school’s communications, noted that the principal who hired Winters is no longer at Waldron Academy.
Meanwhile, some parents who are concerned about the school’s treatment of Winters have vowed to withhold tuition for the upcoming school year until the principal meets them to explain the decision.
Support for the Principal
For now, Winters and her supporters have drawn most of the media’s attention and sympathy, and some commentators have even attacked Archbishop Chaput for upholding the school's decision.
But a few voices have backed the principal.
Christine Flowers, a lawyer and a columnist for several local papers, has challenged the views of parents who want Winters reinstated.
“Getting married was a choice that Margie Winters made,” wrote Flowers, an alumna of Merion Mercy Academy, an all-girls school and the forerunner of Waldron Academy.
“She was not dismissed because she was a lesbian. She was dismissed because she openly declared, through her marriage, that she was not a celibate lesbian.”
“It was her voluntary act, and not her status, that warranted the dismissal,” argued Flowers, in a July 15 column.
During an interview with the Register, Flowers suggested that the strong reaction of Winters’ supporters reflects the influence of broader trends in the culture.
Over the past 15 years, she said, as “marriage equality” has slowly advanced in the federal courts and in state legislatures, “there has been a revolutionary change in the way we view same-sex unions.”
Flowers believes that parents formed by the new ethos of “marriage equality” are driving the controversy that has whipsawed the school.
But she also faults the school administration that hired Winters. “They placed themselves in the position where it could be a scandal.”
Flowers said her columns on Waldron Academy prompted some readers to leave comments “thanking me for my courage.”
“It is sad when it’s considered courageous to say a Catholic school has the right” to secure its mission, she concluded.
Love and Prayers
Megan Schrieber told the Register that only a handful of people have reached out to her to show their support, while she has been attacked in online forums. Still, Schrieber has been heartened by Archbishop Chaput’s endorsement of the principal’s decision, and she is excited about Pope Francis’ visit to the World Meeting of Families in late September.
In a July 17 email message to the Register, she expressed concern that her story not be seen as an “attack” on Winters.
“We made the right decision for our children, whom we want to be steeped in the beauty and truth of authentic Church teaching,” she wrote.
Now she is preparing to do some home schooling in the fall, and she is praying for Winters.
“I believe that hearts are won through love,” she wrote. “I pray that everyone who feels marginalized by this issue can exhibit and embrace agape love.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.