The Diocese of Brooklyn, which oversees institutions associated with the Roman Catholic Church in Queens and Brooklyn, has fired a Catholic school teacher for marrying a man, claiming he violated the terms of his employment contract.
Matthew LaBanca, a music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Astoria, Queens, and the music director at Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, Queens, said in a YouTube video that he was fired on Oct. 13 after someone reported to Diocese officials that he’d gotten married to his husband, Rowan, on Aug. 1.
LaBanca, an actor who has been cast in shows on Broadway and on TV, said the person who reported him did so in “an apparent act of righteousness.”
He claimed that a Diocesan committee of high-ranking officials met for more than six weeks to determine whether he should be allowed to retain either of his jobs, before ultimately deciding to terminate him.
“I’m stripped of both of my jobs, all of my employment, my health insurance and, most importantly, the community life that has meant so much to me, not because of my work performance — not in the slightest — but because I’m gay,” LaBanca said in the video.
Despite his termination, St. Joseph’s website still contains a promotional video — which is being used to recruit new students — that includes a clip of LaBanca directing choral students during what looks like a music class.
While clarifying that terminating someone based on their sexual orientation or marital status is illegal in New York State, LaBanca also noted that the First Amendment, through a “ministerial exception,” gives leeway to religious institutions to discriminate in hiring, based on the premise that employees are considered to be ministers of the faith and abide by a particular faith’s doctrine in their personal lives.
That exception has also been broadly interpreted by courts to justify allowing schools to discriminate against students or parents based on personal traits, such as marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity, or even natural hairstyles such as afros or braids that are common among Black students or employees.
With regard to LGBTQ employees, it has been cited as justification for firing popular teachers or coaches in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington State, as well as in other jurisdictions.
While acknowledging that the Diocese is protected from being sued under the First Amendment, LaBanca said that “just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.”
LaBanca noted that the principal of St. Joseph was his “fiercest advocate” and wanted him to stay, but cast the bulk of the blame for his firing on Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who oversees the Brooklyn Diocese.
DiMarzio has been an outspoken culture warrior, even going so far as to ban lawmakers who voted to legalize marriage equality from appearing at churches of schools anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens.
See also: Catholic school unlawfully fired gay substitute teacher, federal court rules
A Diocese spokesperson issued a statement on behalf of school and church officials to the New York Daily News, claiming that LaBanca was fired because he violated a clause in his contract stipulating that a teacher must “support and exemplify by his/her public conduct Catholic doctrine and morality.”
“Despite changes to New York State law in 2011 legalizing same-sex marriage, Church law is clear,” the statement said. “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.”
Speaking to the Daily News, LaBanca accused the Diocese of selectively enforcing that clause, noting that there are other Catholics, including employees of the Diocese and its various schools, who don’t abide by Church doctrine in their personal lives. But the Diocese seems obsessed over routing out LGBTQ individuals, while giving other sinners a pass.
He described the decision to fire him as “a capricious, discriminatory practice against the LGBTQ community,” adding: “Gay people don’t choose to be gay any more than straight people choose to be straight.”
LaBanca added that he was offered a severance package equivalent to three months of salary, but chose not to take it because he would have had to sign a 10-page “gag order” that would prevent him from speaking publicly about his firing.
“I realized no price could be placed on my personal integrity,” he said.
LaBanca’s video, which has received over 21,000 views, includes the web address of an online petition calling for LaBanca to be reinstated at both of his jobs. That petition has garnered over 3,500 signatures.
Collete Martin, the mother of a former student at St. Joseph, told the Daily News that LaBanca was “the kindest, most talented, gifted music teacher ever.”
“This teacher was instrumental in bringing joy to a school that was not joyful for my son,” Martin said. “He has a lot of community support.”
She criticized the Diocese for the heightened level of secrecy surrounding LaBanca’s termination, saying: “There was no chance for anyone to advocate for him, to show the Diocese we want this man.”
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