A gay music teacher got married. The Brooklyn Diocese fired him.
Matthew LaBanca said he held two titles while working for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn: music teacher and parish music director.
On and off for 16 years he played the organ and conducted the choir at Corpus Christi Church in Queens. In 2015 he also started working at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, also in Queens, where he taught children to sing and play instruments like the recorder and drums.
But, after Mr LaBanca married her boyfriend in August, he learned that a group of church leaders were debating his future and wondering if he had another job with the Catholic Church as well – that of “minister” – although he has no formal religion. training and his jobs did not involve religious education or preaching.
On October 13, the Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, fired Mr. LaBanca because the church does not tolerate same-sex marriage.
It is illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation under federal, state, and New York City laws, but religious institutions are allowed to favor members of their faith in employment settings. like schools and places of worship.
This loophole does not allow them to discriminate on the basis of traits such as gender or sexual orientation, unless the job in question is a ministerial post. This provides the legal basis by which the Catholic Church can refuse to employ women as priests, but in recent years it has increasingly been used to fire same-sex married persons from jobs that were not not traditionally considered to be part of the clergy.
In a statement regarding the ruling, the diocese referred to Mr. LaBanca as a “music teacher and pastor” and explicitly said he was fired because his marriage violates the requirement that pastors abide by the teachings of the ‘church.
“Despite changes to New York state law in 2011 legalizing same-sex marriage, Church law is clear,” the diocese said in a statement. He added: “In his case, it has been determined that he can no longer fulfill his obligations as a minister of the faith in the school or in the parish.”
When he was laid off, Mr. LaBanca was offered severance pay of $ 20,000 if he signed a confidentiality agreement that would prevent him from discussing his layoff, he said. He refused.
Instead, Mr LaBanca, 46, went public with his dismissal to draw attention to the church’s use of the legal loophole to target LGBT people while other employees whose lives don’t match. not to the teachings of the church go unpunished.
“There are a lot of people whose lives don’t conform to the teachings of the church,” he said. “People who don’t go to church on Sundays. People who are on birth control. People who divorce and remarry.
He married his longtime partner Rowan Meyer, an actor, on August 1 in a ceremony officiated by his father, who was ordained online by the Universal Life Church. Mr. LaBanca said it was “the happiest day of my life”.
He described himself as a longtime Catholic whose faith had been deeply shaken by the events of the past few weeks. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about Pope Francis’ pastoral approach to LGBT people.
“The idea that we should stand up for the Catholic faith – well, there’s a lot of ambiguity right now about what that means based on what the Pope himself has said about acceptance.” , did he declare.
The rationale for firing Mr LaBanca and other Catholic teachers like him is still the subject of legal debate, experts said.
“There’s absolutely no government rule about who can be considered a minister, so it’s a really, really broad exemption,” said Sharita Gruberg, vice president of LGBTQ research at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The courts are going to have to keep answering, is this individual a minister or not?”
The Supreme Court ruled last year that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers in religious schools if their duties include religious activities, such as praying with students. But he also found in a separate case that LGBT people were covered by federal civil rights law which prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex.
“The Supreme Court has taken a very broad view of the ministerial exception,” said Katherine M. Franke, director of the Law, Rights and Religion project at Columbia Law School. “The borderline question is when does an employee actually engage in ministry, as opposed to a private religious school where someone teaches math, science, or literature?
“This is the question, what does it mean to be engaged in ministry? She added. “It cannot just be that you are employed by a religious institution. “
In its statement on Mr. LaBanca’s dismissal, the diocese provided an excerpt from its employment contract for teachers, which reads: “The teacher is essential to the ministry of transmitting the faith and recognizes that he is a minister. of the Roman Catholic faith. . “
Mr LaBanca said the church’s description of his role was “extremely subjective” and not “minister with a capital M”, and that he did not sign any such contracts for his work at the parish.
“I would say it’s a strong label for what I do,” he said. “I would never have called myself a minister. And at school, I was Mr. Matt, or Mr. Matthew, I was never called a minister.
His work with the Diocese began in 2005 as the kind of side gig to pay the bills that many actors in New York City get. He quickly became a passion and his main source of income and health insurance.
He worked as a Music Director at Corpus Christi in Woodside from 2005 to 2007, then left to perform in theatrical shows, including the Broadway production of “Young Frankenstein,” before returning to work in 2012. Three years later he began his work at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Astoria.
Mr LaBanca said he did not keep his sexual orientation a secret at work, although he “did not care much about my marriage” because he was aware of the teaching of the church on homosexuality.
“It’s not like I’m locked up,” he said. “I respect the fact that some people in the community may not understand or be able to see beyond what their catechism, culture or parish mentality may have informed them on this issue. I was respectful in this regard, but people knew I was gay.