About 200 parents of students from Waldron Mercy Academy met Wednesday night to discuss the Catholic elementary school's sudden firing in late June of its popular and well-respected director of religious education.
Margie Winters was dismissed for being in a same-sex marriage, something she told administrators at the Merion school about when she was hired in 2007.
The meeting was held at Jack's Firehouse in Fairmount. Restaurant owner Nancy Houston, who has children at the school, said people arrived in moods that "ran the gamut of emotions."
That changed, she said, when Winters opened the private meeting with a prayer and a joke, then introduced her wife to the crowd.
"It felt like love," Houston said of the mood in the room after that, where parents were drawing up plans to address Winters' firing with the school.
Catherine Califano, a parent who spoke for the group, called the two-hour-plus meeting a "brainstorming session."
"People are angry, but want to use that anger in a constructive way in our community. We support Margie," Califano said.
Parents were alerted Friday in an e-mail from principal Nell Stetser that the school would not renew Winters' annual contract. "In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict church teachings," Stetser wrote, "but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings."
Winters said she was fired after refusing to resign. In an interview before Wednesday's meeting, she said the conflict was rooted in a disagreement with the parent of a student.
Winters said Megan Schrieber had suggested using Theology of the Body as curriculum for the school's sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. That curriculum about the human body, marriage, and sexuality was drawn from 129 talks given by Pope John Paul II from 1979 to 1984.
"I advised the principal that it was too mature for our students," said Winters, describing the works as more suitable for high school students. "The principal is actually the one who makes curriculum decisions. I can just advise her."
Winters said that disagreement, late in the school year that just ended, led to complaints about her working on the faculty while being in a same-sex marriage.
She stood by her call on the curriculum, which the principal backed.
"We believe, in these early years, the elementary years, the family makes those decisions about what to talk about with children," Winters said of the topic.
Schrieber cast her complaints as those of a consumer unhappy with what she was getting for the tuition she was paying for her children. Her family has left the school.
"Margie is an incredibly talented person," Schrieber said. "She's not capable of doing the job that she was holding the position for."
Schrieber, who made her complaint to the principal and then the school's trustees, said she never asked for Winters to be fired. She said another parent complained directly to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but declined to identify that person.
The archdiocese said that it played no role in the decision to fire Winters and that any complaint filed against Waldron Mercy would have been referred back to the school.