SEATTLE — In mid-December 2013, as Seattle’s Eastside Catholic High School prepared to close for Christmas vacation, the school community was roiled by news that Vice Principal Mark Zmuda would leave after administrators learned of his marriage to his same-sex partner.
Students organized a "sit-in," and the chairman of the board of Eastside Catholic abruptly resigned, while a lawyer for the school and the Seattle Archdiocese argued that Zmuda had violated the terms of his employment contract — which required him to uphold Catholic teaching — by marrying his partner.
In January, the controversy gained fresh momentum, with the news that a part-time drama coach, who has announced her intention to marry her girlfriend, had been offered a contract by the school. Students were planning to spearhead a nationwide protest against Church policy.
Eastside is not the only Catholic school to confront a public outcry following the departure of a staff member in a same-sex "marriage." Last December, a Pennsylvania Catholic school drew headlines after it fired a teacher who married his longtime partner.
As of January 2014, 17 states and the District of Columbia have allowed same-sex couples to wed, placing Catholic schools on a collision course with an ascendant civil right. Polls already show that a growing majority of Catholics accept same-sex "marriage," though the support varies depending on age and church attendance.
The controversy brewing in Seattle underscores the institutional and pedagogical challenges posed by "marriage equality," as well as the urgent need to articulate coherent staff policies and present a compelling alternative vision of marriage and family to students and the general public.
"There seems to be an increasing number of such cases. The Catholic Church is becoming more countercultural, not because the Church’s teaching is changing, but because the culture is changing, and many Catholics are changing with it," said Patrick Reilly, who directs the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that is working to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic schools and universities.
Washington state legalized same-sex "marriage" in December 2012, following a voter referendum battle that exposed deep fissures within the Archdiocese of Seattle, where some pastors withheld support for a petition drive to put the issue on the state ballot. In December, those tensions resurfaced as hundreds of Eastside Catholic students protested the departure of the vice principal and media reports suggested that the Seattle Archdiocese demanded that the school enforce Zmuda’s employment contract.
Michael Patterson, a lawyer for Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese, has insisted that, during a Dec. 17 meeting, Zmuda voluntarily resigned, after acknowledging that his same-sex "marriage" violated the terms of his contract — an account of events that Zmuda has challenged.
"The contract that Mr. Zmuda entered into required him to comply with the mission, the policies and the magisterium of the Catholic Church," Patterson told the Register.
"When I met with him on Dec. 17, he told me — in the presence of the school president and the chairman of the board — that he recognized, being a Catholic, he was not in compliance with his obligations under the contract, and, therefore, he needed to resign his position."
However, Zmuda has taken issue with this version of events. Most recently, during a lengthy online video interview conducted by an Eastside freshman student, Zmuda said he was "terminated" by the school, and he stated that when the school’s president, Holy Name Sister Mary Tracy, met with faculty to inform them about his departure, she said that the archdiocese was responsible for the decision, not the school.
Further, Zmuda reported that Sister Mary said he could keep his job if he divorced his partner.
"I suggested [that he] dissolve the marriage to save his job," Sister Mary told KING 5 on Dec. 26. "I was trying to hang onto him."
The Register contacted Sister Mary to confirm these points, but she referred all questions about the case to Patterson. The school’s and archdiocese’s lawyer told the Register that Sister Mary had "apologized" for a number of statements that generated headlines in the blogosphere, including a comment she made to students, saying that she looked forward to the day when same-sex "marriage" would not be cause for firing.
Since Zmuda’s departure was announced in December, Eastside students have played a striking role in the ensuing debate, launching a social-media campaign to call for his reinstatement and organizing protests via Twitter.
Students have scheduled Jan. 31 as "Z Day," an opportunity for nationwide protests, and they have called for "students at Catholic schools … to [show] solidarity with Mark Zmuda, as well as expressing our hopes for an enlightened perspective on issues of sexuality in the Catholic Church."
Recently, Zmuda’s story gained further national attention after local news outlets reported that Stephanie Merrow, a part-time drama coach at the school who has announced plans to marry her girlfriend, had been offered a new employment contract.
During his interview with the Register, lawyer Patterson confirmed that Merrow, who will continue to help with a student theatrical production on a part-time basis, had been given a contract suitable for her status. The document was designed for "independent contractors," he said, and did not include any requirement that she uphold Church teaching.
Critics have characterized the school and archdiocese as being inconsistent and hypocritical in their actions. But Patterson defended the school’s employment policy as fair and consistent with its mission.
"The Catholic Church takes the position that they do not discriminate against anyone for their sexual orientation. That doesn’t mean that they don’t object to relations between same-sex partners," he said in his interview with the Register.
"The Church never makes assumptions that because someone has a sexual orientation and is gay that they are actually engaging in sexual relations. But there is no question about the fact that [Zmuda] is married. It is a registered marriage in the state of Washington, and he admitted it. That was proof positive that he was violating the magisterium of the Church, in so far as it doesn’t condone, approve or acknowledge same-sex ‘marriage.’"
Legal experts told the Register that both federal and state anti-discrimination laws included some exemptions for religious employers, but that schools like Eastside Catholic should make sure their own policies were articulated and implemented in a consistent manner.
"No matter what any statute says (or does not say), constitutional protections for religious liberty do have some bite here. The Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision in 2012 basically means that no law can make a religious institution retain someone the institution does not want if that person has some responsibility for developing or teaching the doctrines of that religion," said Gerard Bradley, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.
Bradley noted, however, that schools could find themselves in trouble if they have adopted a scattershot approach to open violations of Church teaching by employees.
And Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs, Colo., lawyer who has represented religious institutions, told the Register that the case provided a cautionary tale for Catholic schools in a changing cultural and legal environment.
"This dispute raises a couple of fundamental issues, including the right of a Christian organization to staff itself with like-minded people of faith," Nussbaum said. "This is a fundamental religious liberty and an associational right."