Judge Sara Smolenski has been attending St. Stephen Catholic Church in East Grand Rapids her whole life

By Rachel DeSantis
December 03, 2019 11:42 AM

A longtime parishioner of a Michigan church said she was recently denied communion for the first time after a priest took issue with her being married to a woman.

Sara Smolenski, the chief judge of Michigan’s 63rd District Court, has been a member of St. Stephen Catholic Church in East Grand Rapids her whole life: her parents were married there, she was baptized there, and she even attended grade school there, CNN reported.

“I was raised in that church. It created who I am,” she told MLive.com. “We were taught ‘love everyone.’”

On Nov. 17, she received communion from Rev. Scott Nolan just as she always has — but six days later, Nolan called her on the phone.

“[He said], ‘It was good to see you in church on Sunday. Because you and Linda are married in the state of Michigan, I’d like you to respect the church and not come to communion,’” Smolenski told CNN.

Smolenski, 62, married Linda Burpee, her partner of nearly 30 years, in March 2016, a union that was made public because she is an elected official, the outlet reported.

“In 62 years, this is the first time I’ve ever been denied,” she told MLive.com. “Why now? And why me?”

St. Stephen Catholic Church
WoodTV 8

Nolan, who has been at St. Stephen for about three years, defended his decision in an interview with NBC affiliate WOOD, saying he was simply following the teachings of popes.

“To me, this is also a cause of great sadness in my own life as a priest,” he said. “Some of that criteria are just around what’s happening in that person’s life, and what do they believe, and what are they doing, and what are they not doing.”

Still, for Smolenski, Nolan’s actions felt personal, as she says “good and decent [and] wonderful priests” elsewhere know her and have still given her communion.

“I try to be a good and faithful servant to our lord Jesus Christ,” she told WOOD. “My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is now taking a stance and saying, ‘Ho-ho, not you.'”

Nolan, 33, responded by saying he is not “responsible” for what other priests do or don’t do.

“It might look like it is discriminatory or particular or specific or targeted, but I disagree,” he said. “Bishop, who is, we believe, the principal of unity of the Catholic church here in west Michigan, has been supportive of me.”

The Diocese of Grand Rapids issued a statement backing Nolan shortly after the incident made headlines, and included a quote from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia about creating divisions among church members.

“We appreciated Judge Sara Smolenski’s service to the community. We are grateful for her past generosity. These facts are not at issue in this matter,” the statement read.

“Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids throughout the diocese’s history,” the statement continued. “They remain so. They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community. No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members. This is especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.”

The statement also noted that Nolan approached Smolenski in private, and that the diocese supported the “appropriateness of his action.”

For her part, Smolenski told CNN that the Catholic church should embrace Pope Francis’ push for people to be loving and kind, and that it had bigger problems to “tackle” than sexual orientation.

She also said she has been “distancing” herself from the church for some time, especially after Nolan allegedly denied communion to a same-sex couple earlier in the year.

“This is not about me against the priest, and it’s not really me against the church. This feels like selective discrimination. Why choose gay people, and why now?” she said. “I am who I am because God made me just like this.”