School Choice & Charters

Two Catholic Schools Were Asked to Fire Gay Teachers. Here’s What They Did

By Madeline Will — June 24, 2019 4 min read
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The Indianapolis archbishop has ordered Catholic high schools in the city to dismiss teachers who are married to someone of the same sex, or sever ties with the archdiocese.

Last week, Cathedral High School made the “agonizing decision” to “separate from the teacher” in order to remain a Catholic school, officials wrote. Meanwhile, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School administrators said they “declined the archdiocese’s insistence and directive that we dismiss a highly capable and qualified teacher due to the teacher being a spouse within a civilly-recognized same-sex marriage.”

The two schools have both issued open letters within the past week that detail their decisionmaking processes, which have been ongoing for about two years. (Brebeuf has a different relationship with the archiocese than Cathedral does, since Brebeuf is sponsored by the Midwest Jesuits and does not receive financial support from the archdiocese.)

This is the third Indianapolis-area Catholic school recently faced with this decision: Last year, Roncalli High School suspended a female guidance counselor who is married to a woman. The counselor, Shelly Fitzgerald, has since filed a discrimination complaint against the school and the archdiocese, with plans to sue, according to the Indianapolis Star.

“To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching,” the archdiocese said in a statement. (Ministers refers to all teachers, counselors, and administrators.)

The Catholic Church does not recognize same-sex marriages, and says that LGBTQ people are “called to chastity.”

‘An Agonizing Decision’

Officials from Cathedral High School wrote that they hope this decision will not “dishearten” their students.

“We know that some individuals do not agree with every teaching of the Catholic Church and so their conscience struggles between the teaching and what they believe is right,” the officials wrote. “We want you to know that we respect an individual’s conflict between teaching and their conscience.”

But if the school was stripped of its Catholic identity, it would not be able to celebrate the sacraments, including Holy Communion. Priests in the diocese would no longer be able to serve on the school’s board of directors, and Cathedral High School would lose its nonprofit status.

Meanwhile, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School is an independent Catholic Jesuit school. While its partnership with the archdiocese has now ended, the school’s identity “remains unchanged,” officials wrote in an open letter.

“After long and prayerful consideration, we determined that following the Archdiocese’s directive would not only violate our informed conscience on this particular matter, but also set a concerning precedent for future interference in the school’s operations and other governance matters that Brebeuf Jesuit leadership has historically had the sole right and privilege to address and decide,” the letter said. “What’s more, we also recognize the harm that adhering to this mandate would cause our highly capable and qualified teachers and staff. .... Our intent has been to do the right thing by the people we employ while preserving our authority as an independent, Catholic Jesuit school.”

Diocesan priests will no longer be allowed to serve at Brebeuf, but the school currently doesn’t have any. According to the Indianapolis Star, school officials said they would appeal the archdiocese’s decision, but they don’t expect families to notice a difference in operations in the meantime.

Coming Out at School

Eliza Byard, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, applauded Brebeuf’s decision, saying it was encouraging to see “such a powerful values-based argument for not firing the teacher.”

In recent years, there have been several instances of archdioceses around the country asking Catholic schools to dismiss teachers who are married to someone of the same sex, she said.

“It has had a very chilling effect for many faculty members at these schools,” she said.

And while Catholic schools are exempt from non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ faculty, Byard said this can be an issue for public school teachers as well. Twenty-six states do not expressly prohibit discrimination related to sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. The Supreme Court will consider whether it’s legal for employers to discriminate against LGBTQ employees in the coming term.

“It is a very difficult moment to be a LGBTQ teacher in this country,” Byard said, adding that it’s stressful for educators to decide whether they can be open about their identity and marriages at school.

“Having to hide some aspect of who you are is such a block to doing your work and showing up fully for all of your students,” she said. “When every member of the school community is affirmed and welcome, everyone does better.”

In 2015, teacher Gary Hamilton wrote a piece for Education Week Teacher about his experience as a gay, African-American male teacher. He wrote that many LGBTQ teachers are terrified of coming out to students because of possible parent objections or the threat of losing their jobs.

“Despite my lifelong fears, I now realize that my students look to me today for guidance,” he wrote. “For this reason, I know I must do what is best for me and my students: Live my truth with pride and courage and share that truth with my students.”

And in this Education Week video, high school writing teacher Patty Smith discusses coming out to her school community.

“It’s hard to do anything when you can’t be yourself,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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