Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Monday that the Mercy Sisters who run Waldron Mercy Academy showed "character and common sense" in firing a lesbian teacher who has been married since 2007.
In his first direct comment since the firing became public last week - after parents of two students found out about the marriage and complained - Chaput said in a statement, "Schools describing themselves as Catholic take on the responsibility of teaching and witnessing the Catholic faith in a manner true to Catholic belief.
"There's nothing complicated or controversial in this. It's a simple matter of honesty.
"I'm very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the church. They've shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon."
The archdiocese, through its spokesman, has insisted it had nothing to do with the dismissal of Margie Winters, the director of religious studies. She was fired June 22 after refusing to resign. She has maintained that school administrators had known of the marriage and had told her she could be open with faculty but to keep the information from parents.
After the complaints were lodged, Nell Stetser, the school principal, told parents in an e-mail that in order to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron had to comply with Catholic teachings and the authority of the archdiocese.
In a letter to parents Monday, the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community Leadership Team said that it upheld the decision and that if Stetser had not fired Winters, "our Leadership Team would have had to do so."
Some Waldron staff and some nuns are supporting Winters vigorously.
And a group of parents and others supporting Winters, calling themselves Stand With Margie, said in response to Chaput's statement, "Margie Winters' ministry ... was faithful to the teachings of the church. ... Margie was terminated from her position simply because she is married to her wife, Andrea Vettori. Stand With Margie is a community that believes this is fundamentally wrong and that together we should discuss how to be more inclusive in life and in our church."
As the same-sex marriage movement has rippled across the United States, same-sex married couples who work at Catholic institutions are finding it difficult to keep their jobs, according to Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization for LGBT Catholics. She said she knew of more than three dozen cases of teachers in same-sex marriages being fired from Catholic schools.
"It's been absolutely horrendous," she said. "It's only going to get worse."
The U.S. Supreme Court last month declared same-sex marriages constitutional. Religious liberty has been a major priority for U.S. bishops, who contend the ruling has made it difficult for Catholics to practice their faith.
Whether the religious-liberty principle applies to faith-based institutions that accept public money is under debate. Waldron Mercy, a 92-year-old private coed school with 532 students, has received more than $270,000 in state tax credits in the last two years, and more than 70 students have received financial aid since 2005 under a program called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, according to the school's website.
"Legally, there's no problem with Catholic schools firing same-sex people," Duddy-Burke said, since they are private faith-based organizations. "Morally, it doesn't equate with what Catholics expect from their institutions."
More than 100 people, including some Waldron staff and nuns, attended a prayer vigil in Narberth on Sunday night to support Winters, who was hired eight years ago.
Stand With Margie's Facebook page has more than 9,000 likes and many wrote to condemn Chaput's statement.
"I just called and left him a message telling him how cowardly and disgusting this statement is," wrote Natalie Bucciarelli Pedersen. "I encourage others to do the same."
"The urge to beat him with a bible is rising," wrote Matt Ryan.
"This man is misguided. ... It's 2015 for the love of God!!!!" Mary Rowely Meixell wrote.
A GoFundMe account set up by parents and students has raised nearly $14,000 for Winter and Vettori.
In 2013, French and Spanish teacher Michael Griffin was fired from Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem after filing for a marriage license in New Jersey, where he and his partner lived.
Griffin said he had brought his partner to many school functions, they both wore rings, and an administrator had attended a ceremony for their civil union in 2008.
Duddy-Burke said she hears privately from school administrators who do not want to follow orders to fire staff. Stetser, for her part, wrote, "In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings."
But with Pope Francis visiting in September during the World Meeting of Families, "Philadelphia is under a lot of scrutiny," Duddy-Burke said. "It's sort of Catholic central for the U.S. right now."