by J.A. Aunión (English translation by Rebel Girl)
"Hi. My name is José Antonio Fernández and I'm a married priest." That's how the teacher of religion introduced himself to his students in each course. To their parents too, since he always sought work as a tutor. Then he explained to them that he had been a priest for over 20 years and that he had asked for dispensation to marry -- "I fell in love", he says -- even though he still had not been granted it in 1991 when he began to teach in the public institutes in Murcia. By then he already had five children.
Therefore, Fernández didn't understand the reasons the diocese gave him when they fired him from his teaching job in 1997 -- they took away his Ecclesial Declaration of Eligibility, which is essential for teaching a religion class, when his situation was made public through a photograph of a Movimiento Pro Celibato Opcional ("Optional Celibacy Movement") action published in a newspaper, arguing that some of the parents might be offended. "Which parents?...since they all knew me", and moreover they wrote publicly in support of him, he says indignantly. In fact, it seems so deceitful to him that he has been fighting for 14 years for recognition of the injustice that he states has been committed against him. He has come to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, that today will review his case in open court. The Spanish Constitutional Court rejected his arguments in 2007.
"I want to show that it was an unfair decision, that I had always performed responsibly as a teacher, with respect for the Catholic faith." A respect and love he maintains, because of which this process has been twice as difficult for him. "I love the Church. My children have never heard me speak against it," he states, but he can't say the same about the Catholic hierarchy because, in their case, "lies have been told," he says in the local Red Cross in his town, Cieza, in Murcia. At 74, he gives training courses to future volunteers. He says the "scandal" business is a lie and so is what the Spanish Bishops' Conference is now arguing in Strasbourg -- that José Antonio "has held a position contrary to the faith he committed himself to teach."
In any case, the defendant at the European Court is not the Bishops' Conference, but the Spanish government which is, ultimately, who hires teachers of religion, but only from among those who have the bishops' approval, according to 1979 agreements between Spain and the Holy See. A power that has already caused hundreds of lawsuits and millions of euros in compensation -- paid, for the most part, by the government -- in cases in which the bishops had decided on dismissal, for example, for marrying a divorced man or exercising the right to strike. "No accord can be above the Constitution and the law," Fernández complains.
Now his life is quieter. Nothing like that period when, in his fifties, he left the priesthood after more than 20 years, nine as a missionary in Ecuador. It was complicated then -- he worked in a jam factory while getting a degree in Classical Philology.
Once he had his degree, the then bishop of Cartagena called him and said: "Why don't you work as a religion teacher? We need people like you." It was 1991 and José Antonio had already been married six years and had five children, but he still hadn't been granted dispensation. "When I left, the bishop said to me: 'You're a poet, and all this will pass,' but it didn't pass. From the moment I asked for the dispensation [in 1984; he got married the following year] I acted as a layman; I took the silence to be a concession," he says. The dispensation came almost at the same time as the dismissal, in 1997.
One year earlier, he had been invited to a Movimiento Pro Celibato Opcional meeting which he attended. "It was a sort of field day, so I went with my whole family." When he, his wife and five children, got out of the car, a newspaper photographer took a picture to go with a news story on optional celibacy. "You're in the newspaper; you're important," one of his students said to him. But the photo deeply disturbed some people in the Catholic hierarchy and they fired him. "Can you believe that we have spent 15 years showing that going to a meeting of the optional celibacy movement isn't a crime? I am truly amazed."
Now, Strasbourg will decide if Fernández's rights to privacy and freedom of ideology and expression have been violated. The Church argues that it's its job to establish the moral criteria with which religion teachers must comply and that the Spanish government doesn't have the voice or the vote to select them or withdraw their approval.