The Miami-Dade LGBTA Democratic Caucus and members of SAVE, a local LGBT rights group, met March 13 to discuss the religious exemption clause in Miami-Dade County's anti-discrimination ordinance. The meeting, which took place at the Hotel Gaythering, was a discussion and strategic planning session held in response to the recent news of a local lesbian Catholic school teacher being fired for marrying her longtime girlfriend.
First-grade teacher Jocelyn Morffi was terminated from Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic School after school officials learned she had married her partner, Natasha Hass, Feb. 3. Florida remains one of the few states where employers can still fire someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It's frightening that in 2018 someone can be fired just because of who they love...and that's exactly what happened to Jocelyn,” said Justin Klecha, deputy director of SAVE. “She left work on a Friday, married her longtime partner, and then on Monday was fired. Employees should only be judged on their ability to do their jobs, but despite Jocelyn's excellent record and eight years of service she was fired.”
Mary Ross Agosta, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Miami, told Politico Florida that Morffi was fired for violating her contract. She said Catholic school employees have to sign a contract pledging they will follow church policy, which includes a prohibition on same-sex marriage.
Klecha said the goal of last week’s meeting was to have a conversation about religious exemptions and to strategize a way to remove “this harmful clause” from Miami-Dade County’s Human Rights Ordinance.
“Unfortunately, with the current composition of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, this isn't a viable option at the moment,” Klecha said. “Employers who are accepting of LGBT people help attract the best and the brightest, but I think that it's clear the Archdiocese in South Florida isn't interested in that, which is really alarming considering we're talking about educating children.”
Walker Burttschell, president of the Miami-Dade LGBTA Democratic Caucus, said Morffi’s situation is “heart-breaking and infuriating.”
“I think most Catholics, especially in South Florida, believe no one should be fired based on their sexual orientation or because they chose to marry the person they love. I say this as a former Catholic,” Burttschell said. “Change, in this case, has to come from within — a task better left to the students and parents of the school.”
Burttschell said the Miami-Dade LGBTA Democratic Caucus, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and other progressive organizations need to actively identify and groom viable candidates and work on getting pro-equality candidates elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission. But he added “there is no short-term, immediate fix to this.”
“We as a caucus want to identify an open-LGBT person to run and reshape the commission,” Burttschell said. “We need to start thinking strategically and developing longterm plans to address this particular issue with religious exemption and the litany of other issues that affect us and the broader community.”
Burttschell says progressives need to “step up,” adding the issue “just makes it clear that progressives do not have much of an influence in this town, politically speaking.”
“I’m not sure if a more progressive commission would’ve completely prevented [Jocelyn] from being fired,” Burttschell said. “However, a more progressive commission would’ve been able to have a conversation on this subject and re-examine the religious exemption clause, something the current commission will not do.”
Klecha said SAVE is non-partisan and will continue to be, but “for the LGBT community to achieve full equality, it needs to stop being a partisan issue.”
“Unfortunately, it's very unlikely the outcome of Jocelyn's case will change,” Klecha said. “However, we can make sure there isn't another case like Jocelyn's by removing the religious exemption in our Human Rights Ordinance or by passing comprehensive statewide protections.”
Klecha said right now, “our best shot at doing that” is to identify and groom LGBT Democrats for office and work to get more pro-equality leaders elected.
“What's most important to us when we work with a candidate is that they are the best person for the job and fully supportive of LGBT rights regardless of party affiliation,” Klecha said. “While we will continue to educate the [current] commission, our best bet is to make sure we are forward-thinking and start working to get more pro-equality commissioners elected in 2020.”