Officials defend teacher morality clauses

An increasing number of dioceses and archdioceses across the United States are experiencing a backlash after implementing morality clauses into their schools’ teacher contracts that require teachers to agree to live their lives — inside and outside the classroom — in keeping with the teachings of the Church.

While some form of debate has been raised in several states, the most prominent clashes so far have been in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Oakland. The handful of Catholic school teachers in those dioceses who declined to sign the new employment contract contend it is an infringement on their civil rights.

Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Cincinnati archdiocese, told Our Sunday Visitor that there is nothing new about the mission of Catholic schools nor the expectations for teachers.

“We regard all of our teachers — not just religion teachers — as ministerial employees, even if they are not Catholic,” Andriacco said. “Our contract for many years has included a moral conduct clause. We made that clause more explicit in last year’s contract referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the source for our standards. Now, in the new contract, are included examples of unacceptable behaviors.”

Contract language

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the new language requires that teachers “refrain from any conduct or lifestyle which would reflect discredit on or cause scandal to the school, or be in contradiction to Catholic doctrine or morals ... (that) includes, but is not limited to ... public support of or publicly living together outside marriage, public support of or sexual activity out of wedlock, public support of or homosexual lifestyle ...”

In Oakland, the new contract language is not as specific about lifestyle as in Cincinnati, but opponents contend that the message is implicit.

The Cincinnati contract also adopts the job title “teacher-minister” — a term to which some teachers object.

The human relations office of the Cincinnati archdiocese issued a memo to its school principals with answers for teachers who raise questions about the added language.

“In a Catholic school, all teachers are ministers of our Faith,” the memo reads. “All teachers are involved (or should be) in school Masses, leading classes in prayer, the celebration of sacraments and feast days, etc. Adding the word ‘minister’ to their job title was done consciously and deliberately.”

In making clear that all teachers are “ministers,” the memo said, the schools therefore are protected by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the 2012 ruling that declared that a “ministerial exception” is available in churches and church schools that gives them greater latitude in hiring and firing employees.

For Cincinnati, this was a lesson learned the hard way when, in June 2013, the archdiocese was ordered to pay more than $170,000 to a teacher who was dismissed when officials learned she had conceived a child via in vitro fertilization.

Fighting secularism

More is at stake in the growing controversy than the contract language at a few schools, contends Anne Hendershott, a professor of psychology, sociology and social work at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

“Once the gay community wins a few of these lawsuits on discrimination against gay married teachers at Catholic schools, the dioceses will realize that they need to be more explicit about contracts specifying all Catholic school teachers and administrators’ support for Catholic teachings,” Hendershott told OSV. “Actually, the gay community does not even have to win the lawsuits — just bringing them seems to mobilize communities against the ‘mean old Church.’”

Hendershott said that the Cincinnati archdiocese should “be applauded” and should “continue to insist on providing a Catholic education in a Catholic school.” She added, however, her dismay at the reaction of parents who object to the new contract language and have protested publicly.

“It seems it is such a shock to those parents and teachers that being Catholic permeates everything for a Catholic in life: education, lifestyle, the causes you support,” she said.

Gay teacher fired

The teachers objecting to the morality clauses in Oakland, Cincinnati, Georgia and Arkansas have won the support of some parents and students as well as gay advocacy organizations. The Human Rights Campaign formally has asked, on behalf of nine former Catholic school teachers who were either dismissed or who resigned because of issues with some version of a morality clause, for a meeting with Pope Francis. (See sidebar.)

OSV left phone messages and emails with several of the nine teachers seeking comment. Flint Dollar was the only one who responded.

Dollar, 32, was fired after four years as a music teacher and band leader at Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, Georgia, at the end of May because of his impending wedding to his male partner of six years. Initially, Dollar said, when he told school administrators in October 2013 that he was marrying his partner in July, “they said, ‘no problem.’ In May, they told me I was being fired.”

Dollar contends that school administrators told him in May no complaints had been issued against him. “They said it was a termination at will, and in our state ... they don’t have to give you a reason,” he said. “But I know it was because I am getting married.”

In a statement posted on the school’s website, the Board of Trustees for Mount de Sales said that the school has consistently been true to its “mission to provide a high quality education based in teachings of the Catholic Church.

“The duty of the Board of Trustees is to preserve the mission started by the Sisters of Mercy,” the statement continued. “The personnel decision involving the band director is consistent with our duty as the Board of Trustees.”

Not a ‘witch hunt’

In the Oakland Diocese, where 1,000 teachers are employed, five have declined to sign the 2014-15 contract. Some parents, too, oppose the strengthened contract language and have protested in front of schools, launched online petitions and threatened to withhold financial contributions to Catholic schools in the diocese.

In response, Oakland’s Jesuit Bishop Michael C. Barber made it clear in an interview with the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Voice, that he was not conducting a “witch hunt of any kind.”

“My desire is simply to make explicit in the contract the importance of being a public witness to the values and practices that are an integral part of the Catholic Faith,” he said. “I am not interested in examining a teacher’s private life. But the public manifestation of a practice or a belief contrary to Catholic morals or beliefs, e.g. through Facebook, Twitter, etc., has consequences on a teacher’s ability to fulfill their ministry as a role model in a Catholic school.

“I have heard it said that we are targeting teachers who might be gay,” Barber said. “This is manifestly untrue. The Catholic Church treats all people, regardless of sexual orientation, as children of God. Sexual orientation does not lessen the dignity, worth or rights of any person.”

Regardless of the national uproar, only nine of the 2,800 teachers in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are protesting the new contract and its morality clause. Those “who have refused to sign the contract make up one-third of 1 percent of the teachers who are employed,” Andriacco said.

Norie Roach, principal of John Paul II School in Cincinnati, said that when her school’s teachers reviewed the diocese’s new contract, they concluded that it “is pretty much the same that we always had.”

“It is just spelled out now,” she said.

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.