March 12, 2012
By Jacob Combs
On Friday, the New York Times published the poignant but frustrating story of Al Fischer and Charlie Robin, a couple from St. Louis who flew to New York for the weekend to wed in front of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park. The wedding, which took place on the couple’s 20th anniversary, had been in the plans for a year, when Fischer and Robin considered travelling from Missouri to neighboring Iowa for their marriage but opted to make a weekend of it in New York City instead. The day after Valentine’s Day, Al Fischer announced his wedding plans to friends and coworkers at the Catholic school where he was a music teacher. They applauded. The next day, he was fired. From the Times:
[Fischer and Robin] did not expect any problems. After all, everyone knew they were gay.
But the day after the announcement, Mr. Fischer said, “I was informed that I’d have to leave my job after the wedding.” As part of his employment, he had signed a witness statement that he would not take a public stand against the tenets of the church, “and this was considered a public stand,” he said.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis explained in a statement on Friday, “When he publicly demonstrated a life inconsistent with Catholic teaching, Al Fischer was relieved of his duties as part-time choir director at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Parish and as music teacher at St. Ann Parish School.”
The good news is that Fischer’s story has a happy ending. Not only was he able to express his commitment in the eyes of the law to his partner of 20 years, he has already accepted a new job offer at a secular school and has also received offers to work in more supportive church environments. Fischer and Robin, who are both Catholic, say they will remain in the faith but will look for a new church to attend.
But Al Fischer’s experience also reveals an interesting schism that seems to be developing in the Catholic church between the laity and the clergy. As the recent political furor over the Obama administration’s rules regarding contraceptive coverage as it relates to religious employees has demonstrated, it appears that on some issues, the opinion of the average Catholic individual is not necessarily represented by the average Catholic cleric. Fischer had been open about his orientation at his Catholic school for years, and his wedding announcement was greeted warmly by his colleagues.
This trend isn’t just anecdotal, it’s also supported by data. A March 2011 report on the issue found that more Catholics support legal recognition for gay couples than oppose it, with 43 percent suppporting marriage equality, 31 percent favoring civil unions and 22 percent opposing legal recognition. On the one hand, the Catholic Church is not a democracy, and support for LGBT rights among the laity does not mean anything in terms of the clergy changing its positions. But Catholic voters are still voters, and their support is part of the broad coalition that is advancing LGBT rights in America.
No American should be fired for getting married. Considering a marriage, one of the most important and personal decisions an individual can make, as a “stand” against a church’s religious beliefs is reprehensible. But as the nuances of Al Fischer’s story demonstrate, the tension between the Catholic Church and LGBT rights isn’t black and white.