Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother's funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.
Johnson, owner of a Washington art studio, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.
"He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, 'I can't give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin,' " she recalled this week.
She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.
Family members said the priest left the altar while Johnson, 51, was delivering a eulogy and did not attend the burial or find another priest to be there.
"You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me," she wrote in a letter to Guarnizo. "I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families."
The priest's action has also triggered an uproar among gay rights activists and enlivened some religious conservatives.
"Fr. Marcel Guarnizo has been thrown under the bus for following Cannon Law 915!" wrote one Catholic blogger in the archdiocese. "The issue here is not the priest but Barbara Johnson."
Archdiocese officials would not comment. Instead, they issued a brief statement saying that the priest's actions were against "policy" and that they would look into it as a personnel issue.
"When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person," the statement said. "Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting."
Messages for Guarnizo and other parish staff were not returned.
Johnson's mother and late father were lifelong churchgoers who scraped to send their four children to Catholic schools, said Barbara Johnson and her brother, Larry, a forensic accountant.
Despite their outrage, the Johnsons said they don't see the incident as a reason to criticize the church more broadly. "We agreed this is not a discussion about gay rights or about the teachings of the Catholic Church," Larry Johnson said. "We're not in this to Catholic-bash. That's the farthest thing from our minds."