During a six-hour meeting Sunday in which females were not permitted to vote or speak, male church members voted to terminate the principal of a Baraboo Christian school.
The suspension of St. John's Lutheran School Principal John Hartwig earlier this month sparked a public outcry from a group of parents that said he was being unfairly targeted.
And supporters of Hartwig said they were shocked to learn that female church members would not be permitted to speak during a meeting Sunday to decide the principal's fate.
"That was terrible," said Pete Klaech, who voted in support of Hartwig and says the controversy may divide the church.
Though an official vote tally could not be verified by an official source Monday, several who attended the meeting said the vote was 76-74 to fire Hartwig.
Details of the principal's alleged wrongdoings are murky, and church leaders have been unwilling to be interviewed. In a letter to school parents announcing his suspension, church pastors said Hartwig had promoted materials that questioned the church's teachings and had engaged in conduct "unbecoming a called worker."
Hartwig's father, a former pastor, authored a document years ago questioning Lutheran doctrine that says women shall not have authority over men. Church members say Hartwig, who has been principal since the summer of 2003, was accused of distributing that document to several in the congregation.
Several parents who support Hartwig have said they would remove their children from the school if he were terminated.
Roughly 300 people attended Sunday's meeting, which was closed to school parents who are not members of the church, Klaech said.
Females do not have voting privileges, but are generally allowed to speak at meetings. Sunday's meeting was the first time in recent history that St. John's Council President Don Finseth exercised his authority to prevent females from speaking, church members say.
Finseth did not return a phone call Monday, and repeated attempts by the Baraboo News Republic over the last month to interview church leadership about the Hartwig matter have been unsuccessful.
When reached by phone Monday, Associate Pastor Carl Schroeder said he could not comment on any church discipline.
Hartwig has also declined to speak publicly, and did not return a phone call Monday.
Those who attended Sunday's meeting said discussion about Hartwig's possible termination began with Pastor Tom Fricke describing details of his interactions with Hartwig over several years.
That followed a period in which church members were allowed to comment and ask questions of Hartwig and church leaders.
Women who wanted to ask questions were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud. But some, including Hartwig's own daughter, said their questions were never read.
"I actually passed three or four questions to a church council member and none of them were read," said Emily Rae Hartwig. "I guess the way I felt about it, and the way many others felt, was that they were afraid of us (women). A lot of my dad's supporters are women."
Emily Rae Hartwig said she is not upset with the congregation, but is disappointed with the church's leaders and feels her father's future career has been jeopardized by his unjust treatment at St. John's.
Rev. Fricke released a prepared statement Monday saying Hartwig was "regretfully terminated" on doctrinal grounds after more than two years of discussions with church leaders in an effort to resolve the issues.
"While congregational leaders acknowledge Mr. Hartwig's fine administrative skills and recognize the personal admiration many parents have for him, our overriding concern is for maintaining sound biblical doctrine and practice," Rev. Fricke's said in the statement. "The decision is difficult for everyone involved. We remain deeply concerned for Mr. Hartwig and his family and will continue to pray for them and the St. John's family."
Church member Doug Zimmerman said a leader from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod who attended Sunday's meeting was asked if any other churches had rejected the recommendation of their leaders to terminate an employee.
Zimmerman said the WELS representative replied that he could recall one church doing so, and said that church later left the Synod.
"To me that was a threat to our church directly," Zimmerman said. "That's how we all took it. I'm sure they're going to say, ‘Oh no, we never threatened anybody.' But it was in the man's voice."
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