Catholic Schools Are Firing Pregnant and Gay Teachers, But Will It Hold Up In Court?

Here's a riddle: What do the Catholic Church and the Sochi Winter Olympics have in common? Well, just like Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Catholic Church routinely punishes its members that breach doctrine. In the Church's case, religious instructors at Catholic schools are regularly fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock; for marrying their same-sex partners; or even for undergoing IVF. Of course, the Catholic Church is an institution, not a country — but Putin and the Church are getting away with the same thing. Over and over again.

There's Shaela Evenson, recently fired by her Montana Catholic school for getting pregnant without being married. And Emily Herx, who was fired from her own Catholic teaching job after having IVF. And Mark Zmuda, the vice-principal whose students staged sit-ins and protests after Zmuda was fired for his marriage to another man.

Believe it or not, under a 2012 Supreme Court decision, it's essentially OK for a religious institution to fire its employees (whose job is to teach religion) if they don't comply with the school's stated religious codes. And it happens all the time.

It's a thorny legal issue, and one that Pope Francis has made no move towards fixing. It's illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, or to give preference to a job candidate based on their gender or sexuality — but under the Supreme Court decision in 2012, religious institutions can technically be exempt from some kinds of employee discrimination.

For example, as Mother Jones points out, if a job candidate who would teach religion at a Catholic school isn't actually religious, the Church reserves to right to favor a religious candidate. And if a teacher signs a religious contract agreeing with the school's stated codes — no gay marriages, no unwed pregnancies — and breaches that, the Church can often (and often does) fire them without penalty.

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But not always. Evenson, who was fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock, is now set to file a discrimination claim against her former school. And Matthew Barrett, who was offered a food-service job at a Catholic school in Boston (until the school realized he had a husband and rescinded the offer) is doing the same. Can we expect their cases to hold up in court? It's unlikely, though the tide of public opinion is certainly turning.

The last half-decade has seen a colossal change in attitudes about gay marriage, which is linked back to changing attitudes about the LGBT community more generally. Increasing numbers of states are legalizing same-sex marriage — 17 states and the district of Columbia, at last count — and with each new state comes innumerable Catholic schools whose teachers are now legally allowed to make their relationship public.

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And although the Church remains officially conservative about LGBT rights, there's a shift in attitude within that community, just like the rest of America. As the National Catholic Reporter writes (and bear in mind this is a Catholic publication):

Strangely enough, pastors had no problem hiring gay teachers, gay principals, gay athletic directors, gay janitors and other needed employees for decades. In many, many cases, the parents, students, pastors and priests knew the employees were gay but made no protest because they were performing services with competence and reliability... Now that gays are marrying their longtime partners thanks to changes in federal and state laws, they are facing dismissal from their jobs. The alleged reason for dismissal is the fact that they are not following the church teaching on homosexuality. The real reason is that the word is out; the public knows they are gay -- and the church is embarrassed.
Now, they feel, it's time to impose a strict interpretation of the law. That's where the hypocrisy, the double standard, is so obvious. Secrecy has been the chronic disease of Catholicism for a long time.

Pope Francis has been popular during his short time as the Catholic Church's leader. This is largely because he's sought to correct the Church's image crisis by making left-leaning comments and encouraging acceptance and tolerance, rather than the strict conservative doctrine practiced by his predecessors.

But it's been pointed out that the newish Pope is, so far, all talk and not much action; that his gay-friendly statements cover up the fact that he hasn't actually done anything to reverse homophobia in the Church, nor allow women to rise to the Church's higher roles.

Much like the entire international community is chastising Putin for infringing on gay rights, it's high time someone called Pope "Man Of The Year" Francis out for allowing the same to happen.

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