SEATTLE - In a Philadelphia suburb last month, a gay French and Spanish teacher lost his job at a Catholic prep school after telling school officials he planned to marry his partner.
In October, the principal of a Catholic school in Little Rock, Ark., called a lesbian teacher on her wedding day, giving her the choice to quit or be fired. The teacher and her partner of 14 years, who had dined on the principal’s houseboat and considered her a friend, had married in New Mexico.
There have been other cases, too, in California and Minnesota, New York and Washington state, where the dismissal last month of Mark Zmuda as vice principal at Eastside Catholic has become a flash point for those challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on issues of sexuality.
Catholic doctrine rejects same-sex marriage and requires that gays in parish pews remain celibate.
And increasingly, as states legalize same-sex marriage, as 17 have, gay employees of Catholic institutions, particularly those who teach and preach, are finding themselves at odds with the doctrinal teachings of the church and morality clauses contained in the contracts they sign.
“With marriage equality moving across the country, it was not difficult to predict that this was going to spread,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national advocacy group for Catholic gays.
“I think we’ll see more and more of these, unfortunately,” DeBernardo said.
Catholic doctrine holds that marriage is a sacred institution, designed by God with the purpose of perpetuating life, and that homosexual acts are immoral and contrary to natural law.
As a result, according to information from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bonds and benefits of marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman.
The church’s position then is that once gay employees marry - at least those charged with taking the teachings of the church to others - they can no longer fulfill their “ministerial” obligations.
How such violations are handled by schools and parishes, where most of the terminations across the country tracked by New Ways have occurred, differs from one employer to another and from diocese to diocese.
The teacher from the Philadelphia suburb, for example, said his sexual orientation was never a secret and that he and his partner used to attend faculty parties together.
In Columbus, Ohio, a teacher was fired after listing her female partner’s name in her mother’s obituary, and in Minnesota, a teacher said she was fired after she indicated on a school evaluation her personal conviction favoring same-sex marriage.
Still, employees and experts say policies are seldom equally enforced - the teacher who uses birth control, the organist cohabiting or the divorced principal who remarried without having the first marriage annulled.
“Imagine if we couldn’t hire sinners,” quipped one local church official, noting that sin can be forgiven.
While employers can’t know whether gays are celibate, just as they can’t know about the use of birth control, a gay marriage removes doubt.
“My experience with church officials at all levels, from bishops to school officials, is that they tend not to seek out controversy but respond to it when it comes up,” DeBernardo said.
Word of Zmuda’s marriage reached the highest levels at Eastside Catholic after he suggested a colleague might consider the florist he and his husband had used for their July wedding.
The school dismissed him last month at the start of the Christmas break, saying his marriage violated church teachings, which he had promised to uphold when he signed the employee handbook when hired a year and a half earlier.
The Seattle Archdiocese, which had distanced itself from the dismissal and its fallout, spoke publicly about the situation for the first time Jan. 15, after a group of supporters presented nearly 21,000 petition signatures calling for an end to these terminations.
Pointing out that Eastside is an independent private school, affiliated with the diocese but overseen by its own board of directors, diocesan spokesman Greg Magnoni told them the decision to terminate Zmuda was the school’s alone, but that the diocese supports it.
“To fulfill their mission, Catholic schools have a right to expect school leaders not only to pass along Catholic teachings, but also model it for students,” Magnoni said. “We have a responsibility to support Catholic schools in their efforts to uphold their principles and their traditions.”
For the school of 935 middle and high school students in Sammamish, the circumstances around Zmuda’s dismissal have proved a public relations challenge.
Student protests took Zmuda’s story global, and his young supporters, who describe the fight over gay rights as the civil rights issue of their generation, have launched a movement for change not only within the school but within the church.
They acknowledge the church is slow to change, but invoking Pope Francis’ now-famous statement that ends with the question, “Who am I to judge?” they have vowed to keep up the pressure through lobbying and letter-writing, with the ultimate goal of changing the church’s position on issues around sexuality.
Corey Sinser, an Eastside Catholic alum who has helped to organize many of the protests, said as young Catholics with more liberal attitudes begin to assume leadership roles in the American Catholic church, the church will begin to reflect that.
“For a lot of us, it’s hard to reconcile the church’s continued hard line on such social issues against other, more welcoming aspects of Catholicism,” Sinser said.
About 60 percent of American Catholics support same-sex marriage, a rate higher than in the general population, according to recent polls. And young people who grew up with parents, relatives, teachers and friends who are gay support it at an ever higher rate.
Pointing out that the church has changed its position on important social issues as society changed and evolved over the centuries, Sinser said, “I think that’s what you’ll see happen here - eventually the church will have to reflect the sentiments of the church body.”
But some local Catholics don’t believe such change is necessary. Kathleen Kennedy, who strongly embraces traditional Catholic values, said students and others who believe the church could change its position on issues of sexuality are misguided.
The Arlington mother so devoted to the church that she named one of her 10 children for Pope Benedict, attends Church of the North American Martyrs in Ballard, where Mass is performed in Latin.
She and other Catholics believe changing cultural values in American society won’t and shouldn’t influence church doctrine.
“Many Catholics are misinformed,” Kennedy said. “There are priests clamoring for same-sex marriage. But the official teachings of the church are unchanging. The Catholic church will remain steadfast.”
Gays and lesbians are employed, sometimes quite openly, in many different positions in Catholic-run and Catholic-affiliated institutions - from hospitals and schools to colleges and charitable organizations.
Some, including teachers, often are required to sign contracts or agreements that include language on how they are to comport themselves in regards to the teachings of the church.
So-called morality clauses are generally consistent among institutions, requiring employees to live a lifestyle “compatible with Catholic teaching and moral values” and “exercise professional conduct consistent with Catholic teaching.”
Employees at Catholic hospitals and charities usually aren’t asked to sign them; in most cases neither are professors, case workers, secretaries and janitors.
Zmuda signed one.
And so did Tippi McCullough, the English teacher in Little Rock fired by Mount St. Mary Academy on her wedding day last October.
She and her partner of 14 years had planned a vacation to Arizona and decided to take a side trip to New Mexico to marry after same-sex marriage became legal there in several counties.
“I said to Barbara, maybe it’s possible I’ll lose my job. But honestly, I didn’t think I would,” she said. “I was there 14 years; never in my wildest dreams did I think they would fire me.”
In media accounts, the Mount St. Mary principal said once McCullough signed the civil-marriage document, as principal her hands were tied, that she was bound by church teachings.
On her wedding day, McCullough said she got a call from the secretary at the school, also a friend, asking if she was planning to marry.
Then the principal called.
McCullough, 50, who converted to Catholicism in her 20s because she admired the church’s work among the poor, said she kept her principal on the phone for almost an hour, trying to get her to explain the moral tenet she had violated.
McCullough had taught in public schools for 14 years before going to Mount St. Mary to teach English and coach basketball. She said she is not the kind of person who flaunted her private life or talked openly about being gay because she knew there was still a level of intolerance in her community.
After all, 75 percent of Arkansans voted in 2004 to ban not just same-sex marriage but also civil unions in their state’s constitution.
McCullough said she also knew how the Catholic church views homosexuality, but said, “Honestly, I thought the church was bigger than that.
“I naively assumed that the church loved me, and if I didn’t make waves or wasn’t too extreme - which is how I live my life anyway - I’d be accepted.”
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