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Gay teacher fired: Does discrimination law trump theological conviction?

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A Roman Catholic girls high school in Glendora has fired a teacher after he married his male partner and photos of the wedding were published in a local newspaper. According to St. Lucy's Priory High School, Ken Bencomo, who had taught at the school for 17 years, had to go because “public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with [the schools'] values.” Bencomo’s lawyer said his client hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he hasn’t ruled out filing a lawsuit.

This would make a good case study for law students. Does the teacher’s right to be free from discrimination trump the school’s right to safeguard its theological convictions about marriage by dismissing a teacher whose life is at odds with that teaching?

California has a law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which may or may not cover a situation in which an employee is dismissed because he has entered a same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the law doesn’t apply to “a religious association or corporation not organized for private profit.”

Then there’s the 1st Amendment. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Lutheran church could fire a “called teacher” – one who had received a commission as a “minister of religion” – without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. But it’s not clear whether a lay teacher at a Catholic school would be in the same category.

With the spread of same-sex marriage,  courts are going to be drawing lots of lines in this area. Maybe they will say that a Catholic school can dismiss a teacher who is in a same-sex marriage because teachers are role models,  but it can’t discriminate against a bus driver or a bookkeeper. Or perhaps a Catholic college that serves adult students from a variety of religious backgrounds belongs in a different category from a parish elementary or high school.

Fascinating as these legal implications may be, the firing of Ken Bencomo also provides a window on the Catholic Church’s struggle with its doctrine about homosexuality. Yes, Pope Francis famously said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” But by “good will,” the pope apparently referred to an acceptance of the church’s teaching that sex (or marriage) between two people of the same gender is a violation of divine law.

But increasingly Catholics are uncomfortable with that view. According to Bencomo’s lawyer, officials at St. Lucy's had been aware of Bencomo's sexual orientation for 10 years, and Bencomo had introduced his partner Bencomo to administrators at school events. It seems school officials were happy to employ  a partnered gay teacher until his marriage made the papers. I suspect that such a “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy exists at a lot of Catholic schools. It may be a necessary accommodation to church doctrine, but it smacks of hypocrisy and sends a questionable message to those impressionable students.


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