Parents and students gather outside St. Agnes Cathedral on Friday in support of third-grade teacher Michael Califano. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Jameson Klarikaitis is struggling to understand why his third-grade teacher, Michael Califano, will not be in his classroom at Maria Regina Catholic School in Seaford when he returns to school Wednesday.

He's not alone.

Califano said he was fired Wednesday by the Diocese of Rockville Centre for not following a “Catholic lifestyle and Catholic ethics” after  pictures from his boyfriend's Facebook page — showing the two men kissing — were shared by an anonymous whistleblower with the Most Rev. John O. Barres, bishop of the diocese. 

“You made the wrong choice,” Jameson, 8, said of Barres to reporters Friday as more than 100 parents, students and faculty rallied in front of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, urging the church to reinstate Califano.

Jameson's mother, Brianne Ward of Lindenhurst, said her family is “heartbroken” over the decision, which came a week after Pope Francis announced he would allow priests to bless same-sex couples.

“It's just not right. It's 2023; almost 2024, and it's a disgrace that we even have to have this conversation right now,” said Ward, who organized the rally. “He's the best teacher. He's been Jameson's teacher for three months so far, and he's changed my son's life. He's patient with him. Jameson struggles in the classroom, and for the first time he actually wakes up and he loves going to school.”

Parents stressed that school officials did not want to fire Califano, but were overruled by the bishop. 

“For privacy reasons we do not comment publicly on personnel matters, but we can say that the school did not end Mr. Califano’s employment over his sexuality,” said Sean Dolan, a diocesan spokesman, declining to elaborate.

The crowd Friday chanted for the teacher's return and held signs reading “God Loves Mr. Califano and so do we.” An online petition calling for Califano's reinstatement has more than 5,000 signatures.

Califano, 26, and his family have deep ties to Maria Regina, where he worked for nearly two years. Not only did he attend the school, but so did his late father, with whom he shares a name.

The elder Michael Califano was a decorated Nassau County police officer killed in the line of duty in 2011 when he was struck by a truck during a traffic stop. In the years since Califano's death, the family has held an annual pancake breakfast to help pay the tuition of two students.

“I thought that we were stepping in the right direction in the Catholic Church, and I believe that we still are, but some people are just not getting the memo,” said Califano, who is consulting with attorneys. ”… I just want my job back. I want to be with my kids again.”

There is little evidence in public records of teachers, either in New York or around the country, who were ousted by the church because of their same-sex relationships getting their jobs back. In July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Catholic elementary school teachers are "ministers" and therefore can't sue for employment discrimination.

Emily Hass of North Massapequa has known Califano for 20 years since they attended Maria Regina together.

“It's disgusting for somebody who's called the parish and the school home for their whole lives, and to give so much more than was ever asked of him, and then to treat him this way,” she said. “It's heartbreaking.”

Matthew LaBanca of Queens knows what Califano is going through.

In 2021, LaBanca lost his job as a music teacher at St. Joseph's Catholic Academy in Astoria after the Brooklyn diocese learned he married another man.

“For people to be treated this way is wrong,” said LaBanca, who does not know Califano but wanted to support his cause. “And the only way it will stop is if people speak from their hearts, with their pocketbooks and with their enrollment.”

Aaron Lohman, an NYPD sergeant from Seaford, plans to just that.

Lohman, who posted a viral Instagram video Thursday about Califano's termination, said he plans to pull his 6-year-old son, Connor, from the school if the diocese doesn't reverse its decision.

“This is black-and-white issue for me,” Lohman said. “This is a hard line in the sand. I've always been an advocate for LGBTQ rights, and treating people as people, and I want my kids to hold that as a value as well.”

Smitha Dilodilo  of Farmingdale, whose son, Anthony, is in Califano's class, said she wants him back.

“He's a very good teacher,” she said. “He's very good with kids. They're very motivated every day.” 

At noon Friday, the church bells outside St. Agnes began ringing, but the group of nearly a dozen children continued to chant. 

“Love is love!” they screamed, loud enough to drown out the bells overhead.

Jameson Klarikaitis is struggling to understand why his third-grade teacher, Michael Califano, will not be in his classroom at Maria Regina Catholic School in Seaford when he returns to school Wednesday.

He's not alone.

Califano said he was fired Wednesday by the Diocese of Rockville Centre for not following a “Catholic lifestyle and Catholic ethics” after  pictures from his boyfriend's Facebook page — showing the two men kissing — were shared by an anonymous whistleblower with the Most Rev. John O. Barres, bishop of the diocese. 

“You made the wrong choice,” Jameson, 8, said of Barres to reporters Friday as more than 100 parents, students and faculty rallied in front of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, urging the church to reinstate Califano.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • More than 100 parents, students and faculty rallied in front of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre on Friday, urging the church to reinstate third-grade teacher Michael Califano.
  • Califano said he was fired Wednesday by the Diocese of Rockville Centre after someone shared pictures from his boyfriend's Facebook page — showing the two men kissing — with the Rev. John O. Barres, the bishop of the diocese.
  • “For privacy reasons we do not comment publicly on personnel matters, but we can say that the school did not end Mr. Califano’s employment over his sexuality,” said Sean Dolan, a diocesan spokesman.

Jameson's mother, Brianne Ward of Lindenhurst, said her family is “heartbroken” over the decision, which came a week after Pope Francis announced he would allow priests to bless same-sex couples.

“It's just not right. It's 2023; almost 2024, and it's a disgrace that we even have to have this conversation right now,” said Ward, who organized the rally. “He's the best teacher. He's been Jameson's teacher for three months so far, and he's changed my son's life. He's patient with him. Jameson struggles in the classroom, and for the first time he actually wakes up and he loves going to school.”

Diocese's response

Parents stressed that school officials did not want to fire Califano, but were overruled by the bishop. 

“For privacy reasons we do not comment publicly on personnel matters, but we can say that the school did not end Mr. Califano’s employment over his sexuality,” said Sean Dolan, a diocesan spokesman, declining to elaborate.

The crowd Friday chanted for the teacher's return and held signs reading “God Loves Mr. Califano and so do we.” An online petition calling for Califano's reinstatement has more than 5,000 signatures.

Califano, 26, and his family have deep ties to Maria Regina, where he worked for nearly two years. Not only did he attend the school, but so did his late father, with whom he shares a name.

The elder Michael Califano was a decorated Nassau County police officer killed in the line of duty in 2011 when he was struck by a truck during a traffic stop. In the years since Califano's death, the family has held an annual pancake breakfast to help pay the tuition of two students.

“I thought that we were stepping in the right direction in the Catholic Church, and I believe that we still are, but some people are just not getting the memo,” said Califano, who is consulting with attorneys. ”… I just want my job back. I want to be with my kids again.”

There is little evidence in public records of teachers, either in New York or around the country, who were ousted by the church because of their same-sex relationships getting their jobs back. In July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Catholic elementary school teachers are "ministers" and therefore can't sue for employment discrimination.

Parents, friends speak out

Emily Hass of North Massapequa has known Califano for 20 years since they attended Maria Regina together.

“It's disgusting for somebody who's called the parish and the school home for their whole lives, and to give so much more than was ever asked of him, and then to treat him this way,” she said. “It's heartbreaking.”

Matthew LaBanca of Queens knows what Califano is going through.

In 2021, LaBanca lost his job as a music teacher at St. Joseph's Catholic Academy in Astoria after the Brooklyn diocese learned he married another man.

“For people to be treated this way is wrong,” said LaBanca, who does not know Califano but wanted to support his cause. “And the only way it will stop is if people speak from their hearts, with their pocketbooks and with their enrollment.”

Aaron Lohman, an NYPD sergeant from Seaford, plans to just that.

Lohman, who posted a viral Instagram video Thursday about Califano's termination, said he plans to pull his 6-year-old son, Connor, from the school if the diocese doesn't reverse its decision.

“This is black-and-white issue for me,” Lohman said. “This is a hard line in the sand. I've always been an advocate for LGBTQ rights, and treating people as people, and I want my kids to hold that as a value as well.”

Smitha Dilodilo  of Farmingdale, whose son, Anthony, is in Califano's class, said she wants him back.

“He's a very good teacher,” she said. “He's very good with kids. They're very motivated every day.” 

At noon Friday, the church bells outside St. Agnes began ringing, but the group of nearly a dozen children continued to chant. 

“Love is love!” they screamed, loud enough to drown out the bells overhead.

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