Aug. 21, 2006 -- After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.
Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.
But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post.
The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible's First Epistle to Timothy, which states: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."
"I was absolutely astonished," Lambert said.
As were others in her community, including Watertown mayor Jeff Graham, who said it's "fundamentally wrong" to go after a woman teaching Sunday school and use a passage from the Bible as your rationale.
But the church's pastor stands by his decision.
"I believe that God has a very special role for men and women within the church setting and many people look at it as exclusionary, but I don't view at it that way," Tim LaBouf, First Baptist's pastor, said.
LaBouf added Lambert's sex was only one reason she was fired, and that "Christian courtesy" prevents him from saying any more than that.
Decision Ignites Debate
Shortly after the decision was made, news sources contacted LaBouf and he realized the board's decision was being questioned outside of church circles.
"I am fully aware that not everyone ascribes to my view of the Scriptures, but I would never vilify them for having a different religious view, and I would hope that if you do hold a different view that you would extend to me the same courtesy," LaBouf wrote in a statement posted on his church's Web site.
LaBouf is a member of the Watertown City Council, and his opinion is getting more scrutiny, as the council employees a female city manager.
On First Baptist's Web site, LaBouf wrote that he supports the female manager, saying "women can perform any job and fulfill any responsibility that she desires to" outside the church.
"I believe based on the consistent teaching of Scripture that there are qualifications for both men and women teaching spiritual matters within the church. These qualifications do not mean that one is superior or more important than another, it only means that God has a special plan for each of us in accomplishing his work within the church setting," he wrote.
Despite LeBouf's statements on the church's site about his distinction between situations within the church and those in the secular world, Graham said he is still concerned by what was in the letter to Lambert.
"If what's said in that letter reflects the councilman's views, those are disturbing remarks in this day and age," Graham said. "Maybe they wouldn't have been disturbing 500 years ago, but they are now."
In many conservative evangelical churches, women are not allowed to teach men in Sunday school. But that's extremely rare in mainline Protestant churches like the one in Watertown.
As for Lambert, she said she may now leave the church.
"It's very sad to have to say goodbye to something that you have lived with and been such a central part of your life all these years," she said.
But if it comes to that, she also said she can handle it -- and she already has five offers to teach in other communities.
ABCNews.com's Nancy Chandross contributed to this report.