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Controversy over new morality clause for Catholic teachers in Oakland

Flickr user enerva

Current Pope Francis has famously said about homosexuality, “who am I to Judge?” But despite his progressive words, the Roman Catholic church does not exactly embrace the cause of same sex marriage.

In Catholic Dioceses across the country, there have been cases of teachers being fired after marrying their same sex partner. In Washington, a Vice Principal was fired for being gay after the school found out he was married his same sex partner. In Minnesota, teachers were also fired after coming out as gay.

As more and more states legalize gay marriage, a number of Dioceses are requiring teachers to sign so-called morality clauses in their contract. In Cincinnati, Ohio and Hawaii, teacher contracts in Catholic schools specifically bar teachers from homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.

In Oakland, Bishop Michael Barber has also stepped into a sea of controversy over the Catholic Church’s relationship with same sex marriage. While far from the contracts in Ohio and Hawaii, this spring Barber added language that specified educators in the Oakland Diocese must adhere to Catholic Doctrine in their private lives, and not just in the classroom.

Some teachers, parents, and students feel the new contract language is a violation of teachers personal rights, especially those affiliated with one high school -- Bishop O’Dowd. They have been very vocal about their opposition to the changes in the contract, and three teachers who refused to sign the contract have been let go.

Maggie Cooke is the parent of two juniors-- twins-- at Bishop O’Dowd. She grew up Catholic, but she switched over to the Episcopalian church. She first realized something strange was happening when her kids made a casual comment, just a few weeks before the end of the school year.

“One of them just mentioned from the backseat that there was a new contract, that the teachers were asked to sign and that a lot of them were not very happy about it. I said ‘what’s it about?’ and they said ‘oh you know, I don't think its anything.”  

But it worried Cooke, and she wasn’t the only one. That evening emails started circling between parents about the new morality clause. Cooke went looking for it online, “so I looked for it, I looked it up, and I found it.”

This is what she read: “In both the employees personal and professional life, employee is expected to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the roman catholic faith.”

Cooke says she reacted immediately to the regulation of teachers personal lives, “when I saw that is said both in their professional life, their teaching, and in their personal life, I said to myself that is not good.”

Cooke says it is important to note that 18 percent of the teachers in the Oakland Diocese aren’t Catholic. Still the new contract basically holds them to the same moral and legal standards as ministers. That is according to Berkeley law professor Melissa Murray.

“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion and the free exercise of religion,” Murray said.  “And the U.S Supreme Court has interpreted from the text of the first amendment what is known as the ministerial exception.”

Federal civil rights law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, and Religion. But the ministerial exception says if you are a church or religious school, you are allowed to elevate any employee to the position of minister -- which means you can legally fire them for religious reasons -- even if it violates those other rights.

Murray says that in no way means the new contract language will be used by school principals, or the Bishop, to single out gay teachers it just means legally, it could be.

“This can always be used as sort of a back pocket way, well you’ve not been in compliance with church teachings,” Murray said. “So it is always sort of there, I guess, as a kind of shadow over their employment.”

That shadow is exactly what worries former Bishop O’Dowd teacher Kathleen Purcell.

“The bishop says I’m not gonna fire anybody, and I take him at his word,” Purcell said. “But he’s not going to be Bishop forever, and he might change his mind. I don't think employees should have to be operating under a contract that purports to take away their civil rights and just go on trust.”

Purcell was let go after refusing to sign the new contract. She says she was not afraid of being targeteit is a matter of principle: before teaching U.S. history at O’Dowd, Purcell was a civil rights lawyer.

Purcell says she understands Catholic doctrine but she says “being a catholic school is not a license to discriminate.”  

“These are contentious issues in the church, about which faithful catholics have very different conscientious positions. And what this contract language does is to place employees personal lives in the middle of that fight. And that’s cruel.”

But the fight going on in Dioceses like Oakland is not just about the growing divide between Catholic doctrine and changing social mores. It is also about a clash between two fundamental tenets of the First Amendment: Civil rights and religious freedom.

Oakland Diocese spokesman Mike Brown says the Catholic church has every right to stay true to it’s moral compass. Even as the population of teachers -- and students-- at Catholic schools grow increasingly less catholic.

“So as that demographic changes does the culture of the school change in any way?” Brown asked. “Not pointing a finger at anybody or anything. But are they as catholic as they were founded to be 150 or 200 years ago? And so Bishops worry about stuff like that.”

I asked Brown in the new language would affect gay teachers who married their same sex partners. He said it would not, “in and of itself, I don't think it would. Does that person then become an advocate for gay marriage in the classroom?”

Brown says a problem would occur if a persons actions crossed over into advocacy. I asked him what would constitute advocacy. What if, for example, a person married to their same sex partner kept a picture of that partner on their desk?

“Advocacy is the key,” Brown said. “Those are so deep into the what ifs…”

But what worries opponents is that the language in the contract doesn’t specify advocacy -- it specifies behavior in teachers personal lives.  

Brown says the new contract is not an act of discrimination-- nor is it prelude to firing anyone. Brown says the contract doesn’t change anything, all it does is to reinforce Catholic doctrine that already exists in the church and in the teachers handbooks.

“The catholic church is not against gays,” Brown said.  “It can't support marriage between two same sex people, because it’s theology is based on what christ gave to us in the teaching on marriage.”

Besides, Brown says, most teachers did sign the contract. In the end, out of about 1,200 educators in the Oakland Diocese - only 3 teachers-- all from O’Dowd-- left.

“Back at parent Maggie Cooke’s house she fetches her 17 year old son Riley, like any self respecting teen-ager, he’s up in his room. Riley says he loves O’Dowd, but he’s worried about his teachers. He knows that some of them are gay, and he says the schools charsim --- its mission, in laymans terms -- is precisely about inclusion.

“The contract and our charism are clashing. I just want it to be a place where-- I just want to go to a school where the teachers feel safe for who they are.”

The Bishop says he wants that too, he met with teachers and students at two schools, including O’Dowd, at the end of the school year. Many say they were encouraged by the open dialogue. The Bishop says he is considering removing the controversial language from next years contract. For now though, it remains unchanged.

Crosscurrents Oakland
Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.