Catholic Schools Pressed to Give Up Morality

After decades of well-documented dissent on many Catholic college campuses over Church teachings on abortion, contraception, and same sex marriage, a new front in the Catholic culture wars has opened on Catholic K-12 campuses as increasing numbers of gay and lesbian teachers and administrators at these schools are lobbying for the right to marry their same sex partners—and keep their jobs.

Posting pictures of their same sex engagements and weddings on Facebook pages shared with students, or publishing their wedding announcements in local newspapers, some of them have been terminated—not for being gay or lesbian—rather, for choosing a lifestyle that is viewed by the Church as inconsistent with Catholic teachings on marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Within the last school year, Catholic school teachers and administrators in Missouri, California, New Jersey, Ohio, Arkansas, and Seattle proudly announced their same sex engagements and marriages.  All have been terminated.   In Massachusetts, a food service worker who had applied for a job at a Catholic school in Milton claims he was denied the job because in his application materials, he identified his husband as the next of kin for an emergency contact.

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Not surprisingly, the lawsuits have already begun as the courts have become the preferred  battleground for the aggrieved plaintiffs in the Catholic culture wars.  Presented as helpless victims of what they and their supporters see as a draconian doctrine on marriage, there is strong public support for the terminated teachers.  Few cite the fact that as a condition of their employment, teachers and administrators at Catholic schools formally agree to a code of conduct that requires them to uphold lifestyles compatible with the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  Being a gay or lesbian teacher is certainly not the reason for these dismissals—the Church teaches that all those with same sex attraction are to be treated with respect and dignity—but publicly flouting Church teachings on marriage is something else entirely because of the public scandal it creates as faithful Catholics demand that their children’s teachers support these teachings.

Of course, this may change as support for same sex marriage continues to increase—even for Catholics.  In most of this year’s Catholic teacher scandals, students, parents and communities seem to be siding with the gay and lesbian teachers. Following the termination of Seattle’s Eastside Catholic high school Vice Principal, Mark Zmuda, after he married his current husband, the school’s president and CEO, Sr. Mary Tracy resigned in January after weeks of student walk-outs, petitions, threats, and negative media attention.

This is not unusual as savvy students use social media to rally support for the ousted teachers.  In Seattle, students gathered signatures on an online petition and communicating via Twitter and texts.  According to a report in the New York Times, the students protested outside City Hall, at a Seahawks game, and outside the archdiocese of Seattle, where they were joined by Ed Murray, then the city’s mayor-elect, who is Catholic and gay.  Alumni and parents are organizing online as they seek to force change at the school.

The Times reported that  Zmuda had not been at the school long but was “liked by students, especially on the swim team, which he coached.  He married in July, seven months after same sex marriage became legal in Washington State, and was terminated in December, shortly after the school’s administration received a complaint from a teacher about his marital status.”

In a case in Arkansas when Tippi McCullough, a lesbian gym teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock was fired after marrying her female partner, the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group mobilized an audience of supporters and media reporters in a press conference last October to demand her reinstatement.  McCullough’s wife, Barb Mariani, is a deputy prosecutor in Arkansas and promises to “end the troubling cycle of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

But, McCullough was not fired because she was a lesbian. She was not fired based on her sexual orientation.  In media interviews she has acknowledges this saying that her sexuality “was not a secret among colleagues at work and did not prove to be a problem until she got married in New Mexico on October 16, 2013.” McCullough was fired because she publicly proclaimed to be part of a same sex marriage while teaching in a Catholic school that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

But, that may no longer make a difference as lawmakers will surely attempt to change the laws surrounding workplace discrimination by once again conspiring to remove ministerial exceptions to hiring policies despite the Supreme Court’s unanimous affirmation of religious liberty against the Obama administration in the Hosanna-Tabor case of 2012.  In the Seattle case, more than 200 supporters of Mr. Zmuda gathered at St. Joseph’s parish, Seattle, for a panel event which ended the celebration of “Z Day” in honor of the fired vice-principal. According to the New Ways Ministry, a Catholic pro-same sex marriage organization that is critical of Catholic teachings on homosexuality and marriage, the panel included Cleve Jones, a nationally known LGBT advocate, and prominent Eastside Catholic alumni.

The fact that the gathering was allowed at a Catholic parish in Seattle is worth noting.  St. Joseph’s parish is headed by Fr. John Whitney, S.J. who, according to New Ways Ministries, voiced his support for Mr. Zmuda’s right to have his job back.  In a homily, Fr. Whitney lauded the activist students, encouraging their same sex advocacy for Mr. Z—calling them “Orange and Blue Apostles.”

The Latest Battle in Charlotte, NC
This battle is just beginning as Church teachings on same sex behavior and marriage are becoming anathema even within the Church’s own Catholic institutions.  Just last week, Catholic high school students and their parents in a high school in Charlotte, NC, protested a speech by Sr. Jane Dominic Laurel, a Nashville Dominican nun and professor at Aquinas College, Nashville, because she dared to speak negatively about same sex behavior.  An authority on Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Sr. Jane is a nationally known lecturer on Catholic high school campuses throughout the country.  According to the Catholic News Herald, Sr. Jane has given her lecture more than 80 times in 25 states.

But, her speaking career may end as the Charlotte Observer reports that Catholic parents and students  at the school have initiated a letter writing campaign—sending complaints about Sr. Laurel to school administrators, and Bishop Peter Jugis, the presiding bishop of Charlotte, as well as Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the current president of the USCCB.  Complaints about Sr. Laurel were even sent to the Vatican.  According to the Catholic News Herald, a petition opposing Sr. Jane’s visit was signed with more than 3,200 names as of last Wednesday.

In her defense, Charlotte Diocesan spokesman David Hains said Sr. Jane has spoken frequently in the diocese and has a doctoral degree in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.  According to the Charlotte Observer, the Rev. Tim Reid, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church sent an email lauding the nun, saying “she represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same sex attraction and proper gender roles.”  But, the President of Aquinas College in Nashville seems to have distanced herself from Sr. Jane.  In an April 4th statement, the president defended the school’s curriculum and Sr. Jane’s credentials as a theologian, but acknowledged that the portions of her speech may have been “outside the scope of her academic background.”  The Aquinas College statement apologized for a lecture that divided the campus; this result is “not something the College condones or desires to create…. There is division where there should be unity.”

This is actually the problem as authentic Church teachings on same sex behavior and marriage  are now beginning to be defined as “hate-speech”—even when spoken by a nun or a priest or even a bishop.  Orthodox teaching will be suppressed in some institutions due to fear of protests, while lawsuits against school administrators and diocesan officials who uphold Church teaching will disrupt the administration of Catholic schools.  Faithful Catholics will be intimidated into silence.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the attacks on the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and many of those who work within them are just beginning.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of Seattle priest Rev. John Whitney, S.J. demonstrating in Washington D.C. for same-sex marriage in defiance of his bishop.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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