Music Director Fired From Catholic Parish Days Before Supreme Court L.G.B.T.Q. Ruling


ROYAL OAK, Mich. — The first wedding ceremony for Terry Gonda and Kirsti Reeve was a joyful occasion attended by 180 friends and family, complete with white wedding dresses and veils, handmade origami table decorations and songs from their church choir.

That wedding in Michigan was not legal in 2003, but rather a symbolic testament to the love they nurtured over a 9-year, long-distance relationship.

Their second marriage, in 2011, happened on a whim as they visited friends in Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage was legal.

And it’s their dream that the third time around will happen in the Catholic Church they’ve called home for nearly 20 years.

As unrealistic as that possibility already was, it became even more remote after Ms. Gonda, 59, was notified that she was going to be fired this week from her part-time job as a music director at the St. John Fisher Chapel, a church in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Monsignor Michael LeFevre, the pastor of St. John Fisher who has supported the couple since he learned of their marriage five years ago, delivered the news in an email, saying the archdiocese had recently learned about it too.

“When asked, I confirmed that you and Kirsti had informed me of your marital status some five years ago,” he wrote in the email, which Ms. Gonda shared with The Times. “Now, the archdiocese is choosing to activate its morality clause to terminate your employment.”

Ms. Gonda has a meeting scheduled on Wednesday afternoon with archdiocese officials where her termination is supposed to become official; she said she had no reason to think that outcome will change.

Monsignor LeFevre’s email came June 12, just three days before the Supreme Court ruled that employers couldn’t fire workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In his opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch recognized the existence of protections for religious institutions in employment, including the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that recognized a “ministerial exception” in employment discrimination laws.

But there are also cases before the Supreme Court regarding religious exemptions to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that could address protections for religious organizations more directly.

“How these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too,” he wrote.

The court heard oral arguments last month in Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs Morrissey-Berru, for example, a case about whether teachers at private, religious schools are subject to the exception in the Civil Rights Act.

Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said, “As a longstanding practice, out of respect for the privacy of those involved, the Detroit archdiocese does not comment on personnel matters.”

But the archbishop, Allen Vigneron, offered a clear viewpoint in 2017 pastoral note, calling for prayer for “those with same-sex attraction who do not see the truth and goodness of Christ’s call to them, that they might undergo repentance and conversion to receive healing and peace.”

Ms. Gonda said that she thought the Supreme Court ruling might give the archdiocese pause before going through with firing her, but she didn’t expect it because of ministerial exemptions to workplace civil rights protections.

What she finds galling is that instead of just not renewing her contract when it expired on June 30, the church is choosing to fire her instead.

“They’re trying to send a message. This is a major shot across the bow,” she said.

“They’re trying to sweep the gays out of the church,” added Ms. Reeve, 51. “Would they rather we live in sin?”

The Catholic community in Detroit has a strong traditionalist faction, including the controversial publication Church Militant, which regularly includes homophobic content. And as the vice president of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Vigneron is next in line to take over the organization, which took a hard stance against the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The firing of Ms. Gonda came after church leaders sent a letter to priests in metro Detroit, forbidding them to hold masses for Dignity Detroit and Fortunate Families, support groups for parishioners who are part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community and their families.

“It is essential that the church not seem to condone Dignity Detroit’s competing vision for growth in holiness,” Bishop Gerard Battersby wrote to parishes in March.

The couple has been inundated with cards and calls of support. Some longtime members of the parish, as well as some members of the choir, are contemplating a switch to a different, more welcoming church. They’re all waiting to see how the meeting between Ms. Gonda and the archdiocese shakes out.

Under the last two pastors at their parish, the church has gained a reputation as a progressive community committed to social justice. And that has been a tension point with the more conservative leadership in the archdiocese.

“It’s just an unbelievable thing that’s happening. Terry is one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know and Kirsti is just delightful,” said Alyce Gilroy, of Auburn Hills, who has been a member of St. John Fisher for 40 years. “I am currently looking to find a new church that aligns with my values. At age 97, that is pretty sad.”

Michael and Sandra Ginger, of Rochester Hills, met Ms. Gonda and Ms. Reeve at church more than 15 years ago and asked them to perform the music at their wedding in 2009 and become godparents to their 4-year-old son.

“Whatever her lifestyle is, it has no real bearing on how she does her job,” Ms. Ginger said. “She has done it professionally for decades and she should not be fired for what she does in her personal life.”

For Ms. Gonda, the music director’s job is not about the money: It pays about $21,000 a year, split among four people, and is a small supplement to her full-time job as an engineer at the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive and Armament Command facility in Warren, Michigan. It’s about her faith and how she’s been able to express her spirituality since she joined the parish as a student at Oakland University, which is across the street from the church. She spent 24 years as the assistant music director at St. John Fisher and the last six years as music director.

Her love of music helped her as she was figuring out her sexual orientation as a member of St. Valentine Church in Redford, Mich., she recalled.

“Our church became a regional hub for young adults because we started doing musicals. We did Jesus Christ Superstar and then we did Godspell,” Ms. Gonda said. “The camaraderie and the spirituality had a profound impact on me. It was a powerful, powerful time.”

Music also led her to Ms. Reeve, in 1994. Even though internet access was limited at the time, they connected online through an Indigo Girls fan group. Ms. Reeve, who was involved with an evangelical church and lived in London, had a bootleg copy of one of the duo’s recordings. Ms. Gonda, who was planning a trip to England with her mother, arranged to meet Ms. Reeve to get a copy of the tape.

The encounter was electric for both. When Ms. Gonda played Ms. Reeve a song with religious undertones, the match was sealed.

“The phone calls cost $8,000 that first year,” Ms. Gonda said.

After nine years of writing, calling and periodic visits, Ms. Reeve, a licensed counselor, moved to Michigan in 2003, and a month later, they were married.

“I knew it was going to be OK when Terry introduced me to Father Brzezinski and he hugged me and said, ‘welcome home,’” Ms. Reeve said of her first meeting with the pastor of St. John Fisher at the time, Father Jerry Brzezinski.

In an interview, Father Brzezinski, who is retired but remains a member of the parish, said Ms. Gonda’s marriage was never an issue while he was pastor at St. John Fisher.

“There was never a time that we were proclaiming it publicly, nor we were we trying to hide it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the church hasn’t come to a fuller understanding of human sexuality and what’s going on in our lives in terms of the person, their faith and goodness and basically seeing each person in the image and likeness of God. We’ve never seen anything except that likeness of God in Terry.”

Although Ms. Gonda and Ms. Reeve no longer feel welcome at the church and have been approached by other parishes ready to accept them, they said they want to figure out a way to stay with their pastoral family and change people’s hearts. Neither lawmakers nor the courts should decide the fate of L.G.B.T.Q. people in the Catholic Church, they said.

“I’m uncomfortable with having laws determine these decisions. I think the church needs to do this,” Ms. Gonda said, adding she’s not interested in pursuing a lawsuit against the church, but hasn’t shut the door on that option.

For Ms. Gonda, her life has been a series of seeming contradictions and she is ready to adapt once again.

“I’m a Catholic and a lesbian, an engineer and an artist, and a pacifist who works for the Army,” Ms. Gonda said. “I live in the middle of a paradox, so I’ve always got one foot out the door, period.”

The parish also is going through a transition, with Monsignor LeFevre being assigned to a new parish and a new pastor starting in July.

Ms. Gonda said she’ll direct the choir this Saturday, as a volunteer, starting with the song “All Are Welcome.” She hopes to be in the front pew to welcome the new pastor at an evening mass on the Fourth of July.

“The guiding question for me right now is how can we together as baptized Catholics, being embraced by the arms of the joy of the gospel, build bridges that create a healthy church,” she said. “How can we do that together? Because there has to be a better way.”


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