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Conscience Magazine

Fired for Being Gay

By Francis DeBernardo May 12, 2014

Pope Francis’ positive and welcoming statements about LGBT issues have captured headlines and imaginations over the past year, seeming to herald a more inclusive Catholic church. Yet, over the course of the same period, another trend has been developing in US Catholicism that should cause alarm not only for those interested in Catholic LGBT issues, but for anyone concerned about the misuse of religious liberty by church leaders.

In the last year or more, the Catholic church in the US witnessed a disturbing spate of Catholic institutions terminating individuals’ employment because of issues related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. While most of these incidents involved firing a lesbian or gay person who was in a committed relationship, and sometimes legally married, there have also been other circumstances for these employers’ actions. In one case, a transgender woman was fired from a Catholic high school at the time of her gender transition. In another case, a job offer was rescinded because the employer suspected the candidate was gay. One situation involved a parish volunteer who was relieved of his duties in several ministries because of his civil marriage to a man.

Students from Seattle Catholic schools join with other pro-LGBT demonstrators at a rally in front of the Archdiocese of Seattle to protest the firing of vice principal Mark Zmuda for marrying his same-sex partner. © ALEX GARLAND/DEMOTIX/CORBIS
Students from Seattle Catholic schools join with other pro-LGBT demonstrators at a rally in front of the Archdiocese of Seattle to protest the firing of vice principal Mark Zmuda for marrying his same-sex partner. © ALEX GARLAND/DEMOTIX/CORBIS

What is disturbing about this phenomenon is that it is increasing. In 2011, two cases were made public. For 2012, that number rose to four. Thirteen cases occurred in 2013, and we have already seen three cases in the first two months of 2014. As marriage equality spreads across the nation, this trend has the potential for worsening, as more and more lesbian and gay couples avail themselves of the opportunities to civilly wed. The era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in Catholic institutions is ending as LGBT people become known by the fact of simply living in mainstream society.

Religious liberty becomes a factor in these cases because all institutions that have fired LGBT people and supporters have used their identity as religious organizations to justify their discriminatory actions. They often claim a “ministerial exception” to employment laws or sometimes refer to loyalty pledges or morality clauses their employees are required to sign, even if they are not directly involved with the ministry of the institution. In Columbus, Ohio, Carla Hale was fired from the job as a physical education instructor she’d held for 19 years when her partner’s name was listed in the obituary for Ms. Hale’s mother. Christa Dias, a lesbian computer teacher in Cincinnati, was fired after becoming pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Matthew Barrett had an offer of employment as food service director rescinded by a Catholic high school in Milton, Mass., after it was learned that he was legally married to a man.

In most cases, institutions are favored by the law, but in one situation a judge has sided with the person fired. Marla Krolikowski was fired from her job as a music teacher at a New York City Catholic high school when she decided to transition to the female gender. She had worked there for 32 years. The reason given for her firing was that she was “insubordinate.” When she sued the institution, the school’s lawyers moved to have the case thrown out because of a religious exemption to the employment discrimination law. Judge Duane Hart has let the suit go forward, expressing his skepticism about the school’s claim: “Insubordination after 32 years of teaching? And the insubordination seems to coincide with the expression of being transgender?” Hart did not buy the reasoning.

This trend should cause alarm not only for those interested in Catholic LGBT issues, but for anyone concerned about the misuse of religious liberty by church leaders.

 While most of these employers’ actions may be protected by the law, they are not supported by morality. In almost every one of these cases when someone has been fired, Catholic people strongly protested. The fact that many of these cases happened in schools means that the younger generation, which is more progressive on LGBT issues than their forebears, has organized petitions and active protests. News media provide opportunities for Catholics to voice their disagreement with their leaders on religious liberty and LGBT discrimination. A movement of Catholics outraged by their leaders’ decisions and strategies has emerged.

One example of pro-LGBT action by Catholics stands out over all the others. When gay vice principal Mark Zmuda was fired from his job at Eastside Catholic High School, near Seattle, for marrying a man, Dana Jergens, students mobilized in a big way. Classroom walkouts were held not just at Eastside, but at Catholic schools throughout the Seattle area. Pressure from students and parents led to the resignation of the school’s president and also the chair of the school’s board. Demonstrations were sustained for nearly three months.

Their witness caused one Jesuit pastor in Seattle, Fr. John Whitney, to reflect on what seems to be motivating these demonstrations, and he finds the answer in Catholic faith and Catholic social justice teaching. In a Sunday homily, Whitney cited the words of Pope Francis:

“In the last few weeks, the students of Eastside Catholic High School, and their companions from other schools in the area, have given us an example of the kind of passionate discernment [that is] motivated by the Gospel….

“Their love, their gentleness, their quest to make of the Church ‘the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,’ demands more than the silence of authority; it demands communion and engagement with the Church—i.e., education, direction, dialogue—since their spirit is a sign of the Church and is a life-blood for the Church. May we engage, with fearless love, at the side of our younger sisters and brothers; and may we trust in the God whose Church we are all becoming.”

At New Ways Ministry, we promote the adoption of fair nondiscrimination policies by Catholic institutions. These policies would include protections for marital status, gender identity and sexual orientation. At the very least, proposing such an idea in a parish or a school will generate discussion of the issue, and perhaps help to forestall future terminations. At best, a -Catholic workplace may adopt policies protecting LGBT rights. As strange as a Catholic work environment that does not discriminate against LGBT indi-viduals may sound to some, it is not such a far-fetched idea. Indeed there is a strong Catholic tradition of such support.

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Threats to Employees’ Rights at Catholic Institutions Because of LGBT Issues

2011

Erin Macke was fired from a Chicago Catholic high school when it was revealed she was a lesbian and had counseled a lesbian student.

Laine Tadlock was fired from an Illinois Catholic university for entering into a civil union with her partner.

2012

Steav Bates-Congdon was fired from his parish music position in North Carolina because he married Bill Bates-Congdon.

Trish Cameron was fired from a teaching position at a Catholic grade school in Minnesota because she expressed support for marriage equality during a teacher evaluation.

“John Doe” obtained an exemption from Minnesota campaign finance board public disclosure requirements because  a court determined his donation to a state marriage equality campaign could jeopardize his employment at a Catholic institution.

Al Fischer was fired from his parish and school music positions in Missouri because he married Charlie Robin.

2013

Ken Bencomo was fired from a California school for marrying Christopher Persky.

Nicholas Coppola was dismissed from volunteer ministries at a Long Island parish for marrying David Crespo.

Christa Dias was fired from a school job for becoming pregnant by artificial insemination; subsequently she won a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati because a court ruled that as a computer teacher, she was not a “ministerial employee.”

Michael Griffin was fired from a Philadelphia-area Catholic high school for informing the administration of his intent to marry a man.

Carla Hale was fired from an Ohio Catholic high school because her lesbian partner was listed in her mother’s obituary.

William Hudson resigned, rather than be fired, from his position as president of a Twin Cities Catholic high school because he is involved in a committed relationship with a man.

Nick Johns was fired from an Atlanta-area parish music job because his employers learned he was gay and supported marriage equality.

Marla Krolikowski was fired from a New York Catholic high school when she transitioned to the female gender; a New York court allowed her suit against the school to go forward.

Tippi McCullough was fired from an Arkansas Catholic high school for marrying Barbara Mariani.

Mike McMahon was fired from his position as music minister at a parish in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., after the pastor found out McMahon was married to a man.

Tim Nelson was denied a school administration job after he had been in talks with a Wisconsin Catholic school system because the employer assumed he was gay due to the fact that he was living with another man.

Kristen Ostendorf was fired from the same Twin Cities school as Hudson (above) because she acknowledged she was in a committed relationship with a woman.

Mark Zmuda was fired from his position as vice principal of a Seattle-area Catholic high school for marrying a man, Dana Jergens.

2014

Matthew Barnett had an employment offer rescinded for a position as food service manager at a Massachusetts Catholic high school when he listed his husband as an emergency contact.

Orlando Jimenez agreed to resign from a full-time position as a New Mexico parish organist because he married a man, but was subsequently denied the opportunity to take offers to be a freelance musician for weddings and funerals.

Brian Panetta was fired from an Ohio Catholic high school for announcing his intention to marry his partner, Nathan David, though he had previously agreed to resign before the wedding, at the end of the school year.

Compiled by: Francis DeBernardo, executive director, New Ways Ministry

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As early as 1973, St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City established an employment nondiscrimination policy extending to sexual orientation, becoming the first Catholic institution to do so. But there are more recent precedents, too. This past summer, two Catholic hospitals were lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for their sensitivity to LGBT issues, including employment nondiscrimination. In March 2013, the laity and church workers of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., persuaded Bishop Robert Vasa to retract an orthodoxy pledge in diocesan employment contracts that would have targeted a variety of sexual lifestyles. In April 2012, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, overturned a pastor’s decision to exclude a gay man in a committed relationship from serving on the parish council. And every day across our nation, scores of Catholic colleges and universities, institutions that exemplify professionalism and religious tradition, employ and support openly LGBT personnel at all levels of work.

All these policies and actions are rooted in the Catholic social justice tradition: a tradition that values equality, human dignity, conscience and the rights of workers. While the trend of LGBT-related firings inspires anger because it continues the oppression of LGBT people, it also causes outrage because these decisions violate some of Catholicism’s most treasured values.

Catholics in the pews have embraced this tradition, as the demonstrations and protests across the country have shown. Parents have been a significant factor in the pushback against school firings. As the ones who pay the bills, and the “primary teachers” of their children according to the Catholic tradition, parents have been among the most vocal opponents of these unjust actions. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that the students have been almost unanimously opposed to the firings. For this generation, LGBT equality is most assuredly one of the civil rights issues of today. It’s hard for them to imagine anything as discriminatory as firing a lesbian or gay person for marrying will still occur when they become adults.

Though schools and parishes may have had a legal right to fire these personnel, did they stop to think what message they would be sending to students and parishioners? National Catholic Reporter columnist Jamie Manson put the terrible lesson about Catholic institutional discrimination imparted to students in perspective using the words of Pope Francis, who said of the young generation: “We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.” Who did more damage to the students’ lives as Catholics and to our nation’s tradition of religious liberty: LGBT employees who were living with integrity, honesty and courage, or administrators who moved to exclude these individuals from the workplace because of their sexual orientation or gender identity?


Francis DeBernardo
Francis DeBernardo

is executive director of New Ways Ministry. He blogs at Bondings 2.0, and is the author of Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach (2011).