The European Court of Human Rights has just stepped in to order compensation is paid when the Catholic Church sacks heterosexual staff who it judges are ‘living in sin’. This decision should also help lesbians and gay men, just as much as heterosexuals. However it is a new decision and most courts are not aware of it, as a lesbian Kindergarten head in southern Germany has just found out to her cost.
Last Tuesday a court decided the German Catholic Church can fire the head of a kindergarten for being a lesbian – but not until her maternity leave has ended, a court in Augsburg in the German state of Bavaria ruled.
The 39-year-old woman had kept her sexuality private for years while working in a Bavarian kindergarten – but decided to come out of the closet after having her baby. She told her church employers that she was living as a couple with another woman.
“I wanted to tell them, in order to put an end to this secrecy and the lies,” she said.
But the church saw her sexuality as a serious breach of church teaching and wanted to fire her straight away, even though she was on statutory maternity leave at the time.
In reality she probably had little choice but to tell her employer – she wasn’t married to a man and had just had a baby. That would have inevitably led to questions from a curious Catholic kindergarten. Bavaria is a strongly Catholic and conservative state.
Church appeals against having to wait until the end of maternity leave to sack her
The Bavarian state authorities, which in Germany have to approve any Church dismissals, refused to allow her immediate dismissal because statutory maternity leave gives protection from dismissal to new mothers – but the parish church foundation in charge of the kindergarten appealed, saying it wanted to sack her immediately.
“Something like a life partnership between women is of course unthinkable for the church,” said Judge Ivo Moll of the Augsburg administrative court.
He said the woman can be fired – but ruled this must wait until the end of her maternity leave.
The woman, who says she remains a Catholic, said she did not expect to set foot in her kindergarten again.
Contrast her treatment with the heterosexual male Catholic Church organist who was sacked for ‘living in sin’, but has just won €40,000 compensation
A German organist and choirmaster who was fired for ‘living in sin’ will be paid €40,000 in compensation, after he took his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and the human rights Court ruled the Church had breached his ‘human right to enjoy a private life’.
Bernhard Schuth, from Essen in North Rhine-Westphalia in northern Germany, was fired from his job as organist and choirmaster way back in 1994, after the Catholic parish which employed him discovered he had left his wife and was expecting a child with another woman.
The 53-year-old challenged this through German courts, but did not win until his case eventually reached the European Court of Human Rights two years ago. The judge, in a ruling that has only just been published [there is a huge backlog at the European Court of Human Rights and unless a case is given special priority it takes years before it reaches the top of the pile for a decision to be issued], said the German justice system had failed to respect his right to a private life.
The German labour courts, which had originally rejected his claim had,
“not weighed up carefully enough, the rights of the complainant and those of the church employer,” the judge said.
The courts had simply adopted the arguments of the Catholic church [exactly as the Augsburg judge has just done in upholding the Church's sacking of the lesbian Kindergarten head: “something like a life partnership between women is of course unthinkable for the church,” Judge Ivo Moll told her].
Now the European judge has ordered the German state to pay Schuth €40,000 compensation and €7,600 in expenses.
[It is not explained in the news report why the German state was ordered to pay this, rather than the Church which had sacked him; the news report may be wrong - if this had happened in the UK and the Church had sacked its employee, the Church would be the one liable to pay the compensation].
Contrast her hardline sacking with the Berlin Cardinal’s recent vision of future Catholic equal treatment of LGB couples
But some momentum for change and acceptance of lesbian and gay German Catholics is clear from a recent speech by Berlin’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki in mid May, when he spoke at the 98th Katholikentag, the major German Church conference that drew 60,000 German Catholics to Mannheim.
He told the crowd that it is conceivable that the Church could change its view and that sometime ahead it might view long-term, faithful homosexual relationships just as it does heterosexual ones now.
“When two homosexuals take responsibility for one another, if they deal with each other in a faithful and long-term way, then you have to see it in the same way as heterosexual relationships,“
was the message from Cardinal Woelki to the surprised crowd, according to a German language report in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. [Read a careful analysis of what the Cardinal actually said here at Queering the Church].
Cardinal Woekli acknowledged that the church saw the relationship between a man and a woman as the basis for creation, but added that it was time to think further about the church’s attitude toward same sex relationships.
My advice for the Catholic Church in the UK and the rest of Europe and to lesbians and gay men sacked by the Church for ‘living in sin’
The Kindergarten head should immediately appeal against Judge Moll’s decision to back the Church’s illegal discrimination and ignore her human right to enjoy a ‘private life’, quoting the organist’s recent compensation win as a precedent from the European Court at Strasbourg. She should expect a similar compensation result, but should be able to get this relatively quickly from a local German appeal court and not have to wait many years for justice to arrive from Strasbourg.
Any lesbians and gay men sacked by their Church for similar reasons, for ‘living in sin’ in breach of Church doctrine, should immediately seek expert legal advice quoting this European Court of Human Rights decision backing the organist.
And the Catholic Church, whether in Germany, the UK, or anywhere else in Europe, now needs to face legal reality: it can choose between a mounting compensation bill for sacking lesbians and gay men because of their sexuality and for sacking errant heterosexuals, or complying with the European Human Rights Convention and respect people’s legal right to live a private life, even if it considers this to be ‘in sin’. Most of the Catholic population supports respect for human rights and people’s right to a private life and there is therefore no scandal. Sacking people because of Church doctrines about sin in relationships infringes the human right to live a private life. Would Jesus really have deprived someone of their income?
Contrast an innocent lesbian’s dismissal with the German bishop’s call to keep abusing priests working
As one commenter on the report of lesbian kindergarten headteacher’s sacking reminds us, it is one law for child sex abusing ‘celibate’ Catholic priests who should be allowed to continue working according to a leading bishop, and another rule for innocent lay Catholic kindergarten teachers. A story of Church hypocrisy favouring criminal priests with employment protection, above lay people who have committed no crime.
At the same Catholic conference of the German faithful in Mannheim where the Berlin Cardinal made his remarks about a future he could foresee when the Church treats LGB couples equally with heterosexuals, the German Bishop of Trier, Stephen Ackermann (who is in charge of dealing with the sex abuse scandal for the German Catholic church) argued there should not be a blanket ban from employing priests who have committed sexual crimes: some abusing priests should be allowed to continue working.
There are “a number of motives,” Ackermann told a crowd listening to a debate on the subject. It made sense to differentiate among the different types of offenders, he said. “Otherwise we could slide into a dynamic that calls for all of them to be imprisoned,” he said.
His comments were met with disgust from a sexual abuse victim in the audience, who said it was incomprehensible that offenders continued to work for the church, and the Bishop’s comments also drew hefty criticism from Friedhelm Hengsbach, a theologian who is an expert in social ethics.
Source of report on lesbian teacher’s sacking – the Local.de, German news in English
Source of report of heterosexual male organist ‘living in sin’ winning compensation as ordered by the European Court of Human Rights for breaching his human right to a ‘private life’ – the Local.de
Source of Cardinal Woelki’s call for equal treatment of LGB couples by the Catholic Church, and Bishop Ackermann’s call to allow some abusing priests to continue working – the Local.de. and of German language report in Der Tagensspiegel