Transgender pastor claims bias, sues Lutheran denomination

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The Rev. Megan Rohrer, who was elected as the first openly transgender bishop of one of the largest Christian denominations in the country in May 2021, has filed a lawsuit alleging that he was forced out from his post after enduring several months of discrimination and harassment.

The denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, declined comment, according to an email from spokesperson Candice Buchbinder.

Rohrer, of San Francisco, resigned in June as bishop of the ELCA's Sierra Pacific Synod amid allegations of racism after he fired the pastor of a predominantly Latino, immigrant congregation in Stanton, California, on the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for which the community had planned elaborate festivities.

In his lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Rohrer accuses the denomination of discriminating against him for being transgender and deliberately misgendering him and creating a “hostile work environment.” He is seeking monetary damages.

Rohrer, who now works as a senior communications specialist with a Black nondenominational church in San Francisco, said Thursday that he always felt the support of Lutherans in the pews, but not from the higher echelons of the national church. On his first day as bishop, during a video call, Rohrer said he was misgendered and ridiculed for featuring drag queens at his ordination.

Rohrer alleges in the lawsuit that he was scapegoated and “publicly shamed as a racist."

“All my life, I've been an ally for racial justice and to people from marginalized groups,” he said, adding that he chose to remain silent after his removal from office last year so the predominantly white denomination could recognize its shortcomings and pass racial justice reforms. The intent of his lawsuit is not to minimize or undermine any other marginalized group, Rohrer said.

He also accuses the denomination of retaliating against him for blowing the whistle on labor violations in the denomination when he reported to synod officials that they were categorizing employees as independent contractors to avoid paying them a salary, which is a violation of federal and California labor laws.

"Similarly, when Rohrer separately revealed the transgender harassment he had been suffering since beginning his job, the Church terminated him, and falsely accused him of ‘weaponizing’ his own identity as a trans person to ‘avoid being held accountable,’" says the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Rohrer by the Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP law firm of Burlingame, California.

In August, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, the denomination's presiding bishop, issued a public apology at the 2022 Churchwide Assembly in Ohio, to members of the Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, describing the events that transpired as “a sharp assault on your dignity.” After the pastor’s firing, the congregation lost the denomination’s financial backing, and was forced to vacate their building and worship in the parking lot.

Rohrer resigned in June and the next day became the target of a church disciplinary process.

“I was pushed out of the church for following the directives of superiors,” he said. “And cast as a racist publicly.”

He hopes the lawsuit will force the church to follow its own policies to treat LGBTQ people fairly and with dignity within the church. Rohrer said he has never wanted to pit two marginalized groups against one another.

“The church is big enough for everyone,” he said, adding that it is important to acknowledge the “tragic history of racism and discrimination” in the church.

The lawsuit states that in addition to enduring “nearly-daily hate mail” including death threats as a result of the denomination's conduct, Rohrer, because of his firing, cannot work as a bishop of an synod or even as a pastor in the denomination.

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