The Brooklyn Diocese is under fire after a gay music teacher at a Catholic Church in Queens was terminated for getting married to another man.
Matthew LaBanca, a former music teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Astoria and music director at Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, said he was fired from his job in mid- October after officials discovered he married his husband, Rowan Meyer, in August. In response to questions from Gay City News, the Brooklyn Diocese said LaBanca’s marriage violated contractual obligations.
“His contract has been terminated based on the expectations that all Catholic school and academy personnel, and ministers of the Church, comply with Church teachings, as they share in the responsibility of ministering the faith to students,” noted the statement, which was attributed to St. Joseph Catholic Academy and Corpus Christi Church. “In his case, it has been determined that he can no longer fulfill his obligations as a minister of the faith at either the school or the parish. Despite changes to New York State law in 2011 legalizing same-sex marriage, Church law is clear. We wish Mr. LaBanca only the best in his future endeavors.”
Over the weekend, LaBanca fired back at the church’s decision to terminate his employment, saying they hesitated for over a month before finally pulling the plug on his job.
“A Diocesan committee of high-ranking officials met for almost six weeks to discuss the fate of my employment and to answer the question, ‘Should Matthew be allowed to remain at his jobs?’ LaBanca said in a video posted to YouTube on October 22. “The answer turned out to be no.”
LaBanca told Gay City News that the Brooklyn Diocese fired him — not school leadership — even as the diocese cited the school in the statement they put out.
“If anything, the school was trying to get me to stay,” LaBanca told Gay City News. “It’s my understanding that they were in my corner, that they were rooting for me left, right, and center.”
He added, “The fact that I wasn’t instantly removed, it tells me that there’s room for movement on this issue.”
After LaBanca lost his job, he said the church offered him a severance package requiring him to sign a “gag order” prohibiting him from speaking out about the incident. LaBanca refused the deal, came forward with his story, and watched the community rally around his cause.
“It’s difficult to lose your jobs, lose your employment, lose your health insurance, and lose your daily community life,” LaBanca told Gay City News. “It has also been very humbling and moving to see masses of people rally to my support. ”
Queens City Councilmember Danny Dromm — a former schoolteacher — has penned a letter to the City Council denouncing the incident.
“Anti-gay discrimination is real and tremendously hurtful especially when it’s done by the bishop of the church where you are a faithful member,” Dromm wrote in a letter to the City Council. “If you are as disgusted as I am, I urge you not to attend the bishop’s events, and I urge the Council to consider whether we want to contribute to this discrimination by continuing to fund the Catholic Charities of Brooklyn.”
— Daniel Dromm (@Dromm25) October 24, 2021
In an interview with Gay City News, Dromm ripped Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese as “extreme.” In 2011, Dromm said the Brooklyn Diocese leader banned officials who voted for marriage equality from speaking at Catholic churches or schools.
“This is extreme right-wing philosophy that most Catholics don’t believe in,” Dromm said. “Their moral authority at this point is truly undermined. My heart goes out to [LaBanca], and I will support him and do whatever I can to help him find justice and seek peace.”
Other city lawmakers have also stepped up to support LaBanca, including Keith Powers of Manhattan, who is urging the Brooklyn Diocese to reverse the firing.
“As a product of Catholic schools, I couldn’t be more disappointed with the decision to fire a teacher over the decision of who they choose to marry or love,” Powers wrote on Twitter.
While laws in New York and the US protect against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, religious institutions have often enjoyed exemptions — but not across the board. In North Carolina earlier this year, a federal court ruled in favor of a gay Catholic school substitute teacher who was fired after he got married to another man. In that case, US District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr., ruled that a Catholic School violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by firing the substitute teacher. The court concluded that religious exemptions in Title VII were not intended to give cover to religious institutions from complying with Title VII’s ban on discrimination because of sex, but rather to allow them to prefer people of their faith in hiring practices.
Like LaBanca, the substitute teacher in that case was Catholic. Furthermore, the judge in that case explained that the substitute teacher did not fall within the scope of a religious exemption because he was not tasked to teach religion.
LaBanca, who has appeared on several TV and Broadway shows, said he plans to write a play about his experience, noting that his story can have an even larger impact if it’s “artistically expressed.” LaBanca said he is open to returning to the classroom if the Catholic Church becomes more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.
“If they were to ask me back to my jobs and rethink their stance on discrimination, I would go, and I would take the jobs,” LaBanca said. “I would do it not only to restore my livelihood, obviously, but because I think that it could act as a beacon of hope and possibility that you could be gay, married and Catholic.”
He added, “You don’t have to be forced to choose between any of them.”
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