Fired over love

Charlotte area organist loses job for marrying his long-term partner

by O'Neale Atkinson  Editor Emeritus  
Published: March 3, 2012 in A&E / Life&Style, Featured Stories

If you had not heard of Steav Bates-Congdon prior to January, you surely have at least seen his name in the past month. Bates-Congdon has received a lot of attention in the news, both local and national, for being fired from his job.

Bates-Congdon was fired from St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte for marrying his partner of 23 years Bill Bates-Congdon. The two were married in October following New York’s June decision to legalize gay marriage. Between the time of the marriage and his firing, Bates-Congdon was never notified by the church of their direct opposition to his marriage nor the ramifications he would face for his decision to marry.

After exchanging emails with Laurianne Flemming, a former student of Bates-Congdon, I met up with him for coffee and was surprised when he walked in with a dog at his side. Bates-Congdon suffers from young onset Parkinson’s disease and for years has been raising chocolate labs as service animals to help him. As we introduced ourselves to one another, Bates-Congdon received a call on his cell phone. He apologized and answered the phone. It was Bill.

Bill, Bates-Congdon’s partner, was on his lunch break and was calling to check in. While I only heard one side of the conversation, I didn’t need to hear what Bill said to know what was going on. It was one of those conversations I have everyday with my own partner. A few “I love yous” and some talk about needs around the house, idle chat about the other’s day and the two were off the phone again.

After the call, I inquired about Ketu, assuming that the name was a reference to the mountain. “Everything about my life has a story” Congdon explained. “Yes she was named after the mountain, but it isn’t, its Ketu not K-2. If you’re from Guam, Ketu means ‘peace, be still.’ The nuns from Sisters of Mercy who I worked with on a regular basis, led me to change her name. A number of the sisters are from Guam and when I told them the name, they thought it was beautiful and explained the meaning of Ketu to me. I called the AKC and had her renamed.”

Bates-Congdon decided to move to the south following recommendations from his neurologist in New York. According to his doctor, the climate in the south would be better for his condition. When looking at potential positions, Bates-Congdon says “I was coming from a left-leaning large suburban parish, not too much dissimilar from St Gabriel, so it just felt like a good fit. Of the churches I looked into, they were the ones that said ‘we want to establish a complete program and make it grow so that it covers all of the age ranges and the things that we could do with a group of this size.’”

According to Bates-Congdon, St. Gabriel knew about his sexual orientation before he was hired in 2004. “I sat down with the search committee and I said ‘there are a number of things in this world that you are not allowed to ask me, so I am just going to tell you so that you understand that I am covering all of the bases.’ I explained that I had young onset Parkinson’s disease and I have a partner of about 15 years and Bill comes with me if you hire me. They just said ‘thanks for letting us know’ and literally no one of the dozen people on the committee spoke up with any concerns. There was nothing.”

Bill and Steav Bates-Congdon are all smiles as they
complete the paperwork to receive their marriage certificate
prior to their wedding.

The decision to propose to Bill in 2011 came the same day New York legalized gay marriage. “On June 26th, New York changed their laws and about 11:45 p.m. I proposed to Bill on Facebook. I was in the back yard. Bill was in the living room. I could see his head popping up over the back of the couch. He didn’t respond. I was like ‘oh my god, nothing?’ Finally I went in and realized he was asleep. He is a vet tech, so in the morning he is long gone when I wake up. I checked Facebook when I woke up and there was nothing. I was confused. This was 23 years, there has got to be something like ‘we’ll talk about it’. I walked into the bathroom and over the sink on my mirror in magic marker was ‘yes’ in big letters. Within two days of proposing I told the boss.”

Between his announcement to the boss, Fr. Francis O’Rourke, and the actual marriage in October there was no discussion from anyone about how this decision could effect his employment with the church. “Since no one seemed to care down here and since one of the movers and shakers of the music program threw us a huge prenup party where everyone in the music program was invited, and most came, there was never a sense of ‘I’m being a bad boy.’”

Following their honeymoon in January, Steav Bates-Congdon was hospitalized for a ruptured appendix. During his hospitalization, he received an email from Fr. O’Rourke stating that the church was fine and wished him a speedy recovery. Bates-Congdon stopped by St. Gabriel on his way home from the hospital and at that time Fr. O’Rourke presented him with a termination letter. According to Bates-Congdon, that was the last time an official from the church has made contact with him.

St. Gabriel had no intention of making a public statement about the termination, nor did they intend to discuss the issue with members of the music program according to Bates-Congdon. When word reached St. Gabriel that The Charlotte Observer was printing a story on the termination, The Catholic News Herald released a statement on their website. In the statement David Hains, diocesan director of communications, states that “his same-sex union in 2011 was in direct opposition to those policies and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and his termination was based on this alone.”

Since the story was picked up by the media, Bates-Congdon has received a lot of attention. “I’m just a church organist, so it seems very odd” says Bates-Congdon. Emails from church members and the general public, as well as music organizations such as One Voice Chorus and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, have been flooding in and they all have been very supportive of the couple.

Despite his termination from the church, Bates-Congdon says that he is not angry about what happened, but rather confused as to why. “One of the things that I have attempted not to do is speculate” stated Bates-Congdon. “Speculation is essentially the same as rumors and I do not know if it would be true or not. I tried to be honest and fair throughout this whole thing. It was a great job. The thing is ‘why now’ and ‘why did I get the job in the first place.’”

Of all the things Bates-Congdon could be worried about in the aftermath of his termination, he says that his biggest concern is that the music program he worked to build at St. Gabriel will unravel. “Nobody remembers who you were, but what you did” says Bates-Congdon. “That’s what I did. That is exactly what they asked me to do was build a program. And, we did. And, it was successful. And, there is no one, even my detractors, who could, even within the remotest possibility of honesty, say that we didn’t build an excellent program.”

Bates-Congdon and his partner Bill have no intention of leaving North Carolina because of the firing. “We love it here. We have loved it here from day one. We have acres of forest and neighbors that we can barely see from the house, but they know us and they love us.” One of Bates-Congdon’s neighbors was a student of his in New Jersey when he was first out of college.

When looking toward the future, Bates-Congdon is hopeful, both for himself and for North Carolina. “Now I understand what a loving committed relationship is,” he says in regard to his marriage with Bill.

Bates-Congdon watched New York’s legalization of gay marriage online and saw what he thought would be impossible become a reality. He believes North Carolina has the potential to make the same statement. “God bless Bev Perdue for not running. She has given us the ultimate leg up on defeating the marriage amendment. I think there is a very good chance,” he says. “If the response to what has happened to me is anything like the response to Amendment One then we are ‘in like Flint.’” : :