Religious schools up and down the country are firing teachers for entering into same-sex marriages, but it’s a fight they can’t win.
The most recent case to make the headlines is that of former vice principal of Eastside Catholic school, Mark Zamuda. He was fired in December of last year from the Seattle, Washington school after the school became aware of the fact that he had married his same-sex partner in July. The administration cited church doctrine and the fact that Zmuda had violated an employment contract that stipulated Zmuda must adhere to church standards of morality.
In an intriguing twist, Zamuda is now claiming that the Catholic school’s officials suggested he might be able to keep his job if he were to get a divorce:
“But I also thought another teaching they were against was divorce. I’m a little shocked that was even on the table to have me keep my job. They also offered for me to have a commitment ceremony if I were willing to get a divorce.”
The school’s lawyers are denying this claim. Said the school’s lawyer in a comment to MSNBC:
“He’s a wonderful man, he performed beautifully, and we’re going to give him the finest recommendation we possibly can to help him secure a position,” said Mike Patterson, attorney for Eastside Catholic. But Zmuda “understood that his contract required him to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, and he knew that he was not doing that because of his marriage.”
Nevertheless, Zamuda was popular at the school and his firing has driven several protests from students and their parents who feel Zamuda should not have been let go.
Zmuda’s termination from the school of 935 students drew global attention and triggered a sit-in by Eastside Catholic high-school students and at other area Catholic schools as well as ongoing rallies and protests.
On Saturday, they held a rally outside the offices of the Seattle Archdiocese and are planning other events, including something they are calling nationwide “Z” day, asking students and others across the country to wear orange, one of the school colors, on Jan. 31 in solidarity with Zmuda.
“We will continue to write letters, lobby Church officials, and use any other means at our disposal to respectfully work toward our ultimate goal of changing the discriminatory attitudes regarding homosexuality in the Church,” local students said in a statement.
The school, perhaps realizing this issue is not going to go away, has reportedly said that it is keen to work with students to create a positive outcome. It will need to.
Teaching, as a profession, is damned hard, high pressured and a vocation rather than just a job. There have now been stories of so many teachers being dismissed for being gay that it’s impossible to count them all — yet every one is a tragedy.
To be sure, religious schools are entitled to hire and fire whomever they want. That is, on the provision that they are not taking public money. There we run into a slight problem.
A number of religious schools are being propped up by the state, especially heavily religious conservative states where the state administration feels it can exploit voucher programs for a variety of purposes such as to advance creationism or anti-LGBT religious views. Complaints have been made about this kind of practice, and it seems now only a matter of time before some sort of a lawsuit is brought.
Eastside has not done this. However, there’s also the fact that private religious schools benefit from their close relationship with local religious authorities, from whom they, like Eastside Catholic, take their moral instruction. In this way religious institutions are capable of morality policing and discriminating while still benefiting from religious tax exemptions which are thought to cost America about $71 billion a year. That’s a fact that is unlikely to be tolerated going forward as concerns grow that the line between Church and State is becoming more and more blurred.
There’s another clear way in which religious schools are losing this fight. They have forgotten about the pupils with whom these teachers form relationships. As we’ve seen in the case of Eastside Catholic, that’s not a good idea.
When a school fires a much admired teacher for no other reason than their entering into a same-sex marriage, or for being in a same-sex relationship, they are denying the student body a relationship with an educator whom they have come to trust and respect. This is a lesson in unfairness, and with national statistics showing that young people are increasingly more likely to think anti-gay discrimination is wrong, it could be the very thing that drives them away from religion in its entirety.
There is of course an argument to be made that schools have every right to impose reasonable restrictions on their staff. However, more and more these kind of restrictions are being recognized as unreasonable. If religious schools want to continue operating, these kinds of policies are also unsustainable and should be abandoned.
Ultimately, while it is the individual teachers who are suffering now, it is religious institutions who will lose out and further marginalize themselves if they continue fighting their battle against gay marriage by firing teachers (who probably would count themselves as religious) for no other reason than their private, legal relationships.
For Eastside Catholic, the matter certainly isn’t over yet: the school’s drama coach, Stephanie Merrow, just got engaged to her long-term female partner. What will the school do now?
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