Trans former bishop sues Lutheran church, alleging harassment

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday March 2, 2023
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The Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer, who had been the first out trans bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America until he was forced to resign in 2022, has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer. Photo: Makayla Rohrer
The Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer, who had been the first out trans bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America until he was forced to resign in 2022, has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer. Photo: Makayla Rohrer

The first openly transgender bishop in a major Christian denomination in the United States has filed a federal lawsuit alleging he was demeaned, harassed, defamed, and eventually pushed out of the Sierra Pacific Synod, a division of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America covering the geographical area of Northern California and parts of Nevada.

As the Bay Area Reporter has extensively covered, the Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer, who is now using male pronouns, was appointed bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the largest Lutheran community in the U.S. and its seventh-largest Christian denomination) in May 2021. He resigned just over a year in his position, in June 2022, after firing a Latino pastor at a church in the Central Valley on the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a sacred day for Latino Christians, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

The resignation came after the synod's general assembly voted to remove Rohrer as a bishop, and at the request of the church's presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton. Court documents in a separate 2018 civil suit filed in San Francisco Superior Court revealed allegations of corruption against Rohrer in connection to the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a now-closed Sunset neighborhood church he'd led, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Rohrer's suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, contains six causes of action against the church.

Specifically, Rohrer alleges: 1) he was unlawfully harassed on account of his gender identity, 2) he was retaliated against for complaining about the church misclassifying independent contractors, 3) he was defamed as a racist, 4) the defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress, 5) the defendants negligently inflicted emotional distress, and 6) the church caused a breach of contract, since Rohrer was appointed to a six-year term.

Rohrer "was repeatedly misgendered, ridiculed, and demeaned by clergy and congregants alike," the release stated. "Rohrer brings a claim for harassment on the basis of his sexual orientation and gender identity. He also alleges he was terminated for blowing the whistle on the church's violations of California labor laws."

The release stated that the termination of the Reverend Nelson Rabell-González of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton was justified.

"Rohrer further alleges the church defamed him by repeatedly implying he was 'racist' in terminating a Latino pastor following a two-year investigation into more than a dozen accusations against the pastor of verbal harassment, retaliation, and 'abusive activity,'" the release stated. "As alleged in the complaint, Rohrer was required to follow the Church's directive to terminate the pastor on December 12, the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a significant day for many Latiné congregants. After following the Church's directive, the Church opened up an 'investigation' about Rohrer's 'racist motivations,' forced him out of his role as Bishop, and made several harmful, defamatory statements portraying Rohrer as 'racist' and dangerous."

Efforts to reach Rabell-González were not immediately returned.

Rohrer is being represented by the firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP.

"Megan Rohrer is an extraordinary individual who has dedicated his life to lifting marginalized communities in faith and in service," stated Tamarah Prevost, a lawyer with the firm. "The church's public false statements implying he is racist are egregious, absurd, and are contradicted by his entire life's work.

"As bishop, Megan Rohrer built a bridge between the Church and the LGBTQIA+ community, who have been historically excluded by the Church. Its appalling conduct here sends a clear message not just to that community but any marginalized group unsure of whether the church will accept them," Prevost added.

Rohrer said he is fighting for equal treatment of LGBTQ people in the Lutheran Church.

"I love being a Lutheran because we believe that God loves and welcomes all people," Rohrer stated. "While bishop, the church resisted my efforts to make the church more inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups and forced me out of my role. My hope is that this lawsuit accelerates the changes that LGBTQIA+ folks, and all historically underrepresented groups, need to be safe and equal in our church."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined to respond to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

Rohrer served as pastor at San Francisco's Grace Lutheran from 2014-2021. In 2018, he became the community chaplain coordinator for the San Francisco Police Department, a role he left when he was named bishop.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the more progressive U.S. Protestant denominations. With 3 million baptized members, it holds less strictly to Confessional Lutheranism than the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second-largest U.S. Lutheran group. It has allowed blessings of same-sex marriages since 2009.

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