When a new priest was assigned to St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown, Montana, parishioners probably didn’t expect it to make national headlines. But four days after the Rev. Samuel Spiering assumed his new post, he told one married same-sex couple they would no longer be able to receive sacraments in the church or be part of any the church’s ministries in any way unless they divorced, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Paul Huff, 73, and Tom Wojtowick, 66, have belonged to the Catholic Church their entire lives. They have been together for 30 years and have been active members of St. Leo’s since they moved to the town in 2003. On May 31, 2013, they got married in Seattle, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2012.
According to Huff, Spiering left a voicemail message on the couple’s answering machine on Aug. 6 asking one of the two men to return his call.
"He said, 'I heard a rumor that you two got married,'" Huff told the Great Falls Tribune, recalling the conversation he had with the priest on the phone.
The next day, the couple met Spiering in his office who told the men that their same-sex marriage violated the teachings of the church. They would no longer be allowed to receive Communion and were removed from their voluntary posts. Wojtowick is the church’s organist, and an accompanist and choir member. Huff sings in the choir and is a cantor, according to the Billings Gazette.
Wojtowick and Huff said they spoke with both Spiering and Bishop Michael Warfel (who was on the phone). An agreement was made where the couple would sign a restoration statement that supported the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman. The couple agreed.
“It was not our intent to challenge that [concept], but to have the rights of civic protections in our old age,” Wojtowick said.
When it came time to sign the statement on Aug. 25, the priest told them they would also need to establish a timeline for the two men to divorce and cease living together -- a stipulation Wojtowick and Huff did not expect, and did not agree to.
Since the news broke, Huff says that at least 40 congregants have either refused to attend Mass or expressed disapproval of the priest’s action. The divide is so pronounced Warfel has scheduled a meeting Saturday to discuss with parishioners the reasons behind the church’s decision -- saying it's in line with the church’s teachings.
“Either I uphold what Catholic teachings are or, by ignoring it or permitting it, I’m saying I disagree with what I’m ordained to uphold,” Warfel told the Billings Gazette. He added that the decision stems more from the Catholic Church’s view on marriage, not homosexuality.
“This is not animus against someone who happens to be a homosexual; this issue is the same-sex marriage,” he said. “A lot of people put those two together, and obviously there’s a connection, but it’s not the same thing.”