RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Virginia man said the bishop of a local Catholic diocese forced his removal from the top job at a diocese-owned assisted living home because he's gay and married to his partner of 30 years.
John Murphy filed a discrimination claim against the Catholic Diocese of Richmond with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month. He said he served as executive director of the Saint Francis Home in Richmond for about a week before two deputies of Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo told him that he was being fired because his marriage goes against church doctrine.
Murphy was terminated without severance pay and he and his husband, a retired clinical social worker, are relying primarily on Social Security benefits to get by, he said. The 63-year-old lifelong Catholic said the incident has shaken his faith in his church.
"I thought I found a safe place where I could do good and I won't be judged and I won't be ostracized," Murphy said. "People being discriminated against because of who they love, when it has nothing to do with their performance, is outrageous."
Diana Sims Snider, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, declined to answer specific questions about Murphy's charges, saying she cannot comment on personnel matters. But she said the diocese sees it as a First Amendment issue and expects its employees to uphold the teachings of the church, "including the values that are consistent with the sanctity of marriage."
"We expect that a Catholic organization or any religious organization should be able to follow the teachings of our faith," said Snider. "We are saying: this is what we do as Catholics, this is what we expect of our employees because this is what we believe to be true."
The Saint Francis Home's day-to-day operations are handled by lay administrators. The diocese doesn't fund the home's yearly operating expenses, but it supports the home in other ways, like allowing it to solicit funds from parishioners, Snider said.
Murphy said he had been told by the president of the home's board of directors, which is made up of the bishop's appointees and handles hiring, that his relationship wouldn't be a problem. Murphy and his attorney said they believe DiLorenzo found out about his marriage after his new employee paperwork was forwarded to the diocese for processing.
At least one board member has resigned out of frustration with the bishop's actions.
"I didn't want to be a part of that decision - not in this day and age," said Sam Dibert Sr., who had been vice president of the board and served on it for more than 20 years. Dibert said he didn't know that Murphy was gay until after he was hired, but it didn't affect his opinion of him or whether he thought he could do the job.
The board's president didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dozens of openly gay employees at Catholic institutions in the U.S have reported losing their jobs since 2010 over their same-sex relationships or support for gay marriage and gay rights, according to New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission ruled in July that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act - which bars employers from discriminating against someone because of their sex, race and religion - also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
There is a religious exemption in the law, but it goes only so far as to allow organizations from refusing to hire people who aren't part of their religion, said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in constitutional and civil rights law.
If the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finds that Murphy was discriminated against, it will try to negotiate a settlement between the two sides. If it finds that there has been no discrimination or a settlement can't be reached, it will likely end up in federal court, where the potential outcome is unclear.
The issue hasn't been tested in court since the commission made its ruling in July and courts aren't required to follow the commission's guidelines.
"This is a very quickly developing area of the law," Bagenstos says. "It's, in some ways, a very open issue in the federal courts right now."