Catholic Schools Stand Strong Against Criticism of Teacher Contracts

Oakland, Calif., and Cincinnati have introduced new language in their 2014-2015 contracts, strengthening their commitment to protecting Catholic identity in their schools.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Diocesan schools in Cincinnati and Oakland, Calif., are withstanding criticism for contracts that require teachers to witness to the faith in the classroom, but also how they present themselves publicly.

Criticism of Catholic-school contracts that ask teachers to not contradict the Church in public have received sensationalized coverage from the mainstream media in California and Ohio, where a small number of teachers are opposing the contractual language.

But the dioceses in question are standing their ground, emphasizing the vital role teachers play in transmitting Catholic teaching and values to their students.

“We have to faithfully represent what Christ and the Church stand for,” Oakland Bishop Michael Barber told the Register May 29.

Bishop Barber made the language of the annual teaching contracts in his diocese more specific, clarifying that teachers should not publicly defy Church’s teaching on controversial issues such as abortion and marriage, a move that drew protests from a local lawmaker and small group of diocesan teachers.

Still, acceptance of the teaching contracts has been strong and widespread. Officials in the Diocese of Oakland report that all but three of the 1,400 school employees have signed the contract. Oakland’s Catholic schools serve nearly 20,000 students.

So-called “morality clauses” are nothing new in Catholic-school employment policies. In The Catholic Voice, Oakland’s diocesan paper, Bishop Barber said the new contract language amounted to “a very small change” that sought to “clarify (that each school) is an integral part of the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church.”

“Our school contracts are invitations to teachers to join in this mission and ministry of the Church,” explained the bishop. “All teachers are expected to join in the Church’s educational ministry, teaching and modeling the values and ethical standards of Christ and the Catholic Church.”

However, the change was met with hostility by some. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Catholic with a daughter with same-sex attraction, characterized the contract as “Inquisition-style” tactics. Joined by public-school officials and homosexual-rights activists, she held a press conference in front of Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Other protests against the Oakland diocesan contracts centered on some teachers, parents and students at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School. On May 27, the bishop met with school staff and agreed to engage them in next year’s contract discussion. During that meeting, Bishop Barber told the Register, most of the school’s faculty expressed their agreement with the new contract language.

But O’Dowd’s affirmation of its Catholic mission should hardly be a surprise to anyone familiar with the school. Its website opens by declaring, “The school affirms the teachings, moral values and ethical standards of the Catholic Church.”

Bishop Barber emphasized that Catholic-school employees teach by example.

“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. I am not interested in examining a teacher’s private life,” Bishop Barber wrote in The Catholic Voice on May 19.  Still, he cautioned that contemporary means of communications, such as Facebook and Twitter, are “public manifestations,” and opposing Church teaching openly on the mediums has “consequences on a teacher’s ability to fulfill his or her ministry as a role model in a Catholic school.”


Consistent and Clear

The change by the Diocese of Oakland to clarify its contract language is only the latest effort by bishops to ensure that Catholic schools and their employees consistently witness to Church teaching, both inside the classroom and outside of it.

Most dioceses have explicit statements of expectations for school employees, which both affirm the purpose of Catholic schools and advise prospective employees of the expectation. Generally, the language says that the school’s purpose is to teach Catholic values to its students and that school staff are an integral part of that effort.

Occasionally, the emphasis on upholding values has caused pushback.

Last year, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, Calif., asked teachers to sign contracts that included a clause acknowledging Catholic teaching. It generated mixed reaction. Bishop Vasa eventually delayed the new contract language, but still sees a need for a clear statement of Catholic principles and expectations.

And a few public actions by teachers that conflicted with Church teaching have resulted in dismissals.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, Mark Zmuda, vice principal of a Catholic high school, left his position last December after entering into a civil marriage with his male partner. He sued for discrimination, and, last month, a judge denied a motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that it would violate the school’s First Amendment rights.

In Cincinnati, Mike Moroski was dismissed in 2013 after tweeting support for same-sex “marriage.”            

“Each case refers to public actions,” explains Dan Andriacco, Cincinnati’s archdiocesan spokesman, “that would undermine what students are being taught in the classroom.”

“Very simply, teachers are ministers of the Church,” Andriacco emphasizes.  “That is the reason we open our school doors every day.”


Supreme Court Precedent

There is strong legal basis defending the ministerial role of religious-school employees. A unanimous 2012 Supreme Court decision (Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC) upheld the dismissal of a teacher by a Lutheran school in Michigan on religious grounds.

The court held that the fired teacher could not sue for discrimination because the school considered her a minister. Barring the church from dismissing an employee “interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs," the justices wrote.

But there are limits to the ministerial protection. Christa Dias, an unmarried Cincinnati Catholic-school teacher, who was living in a same-sex relationship, was terminated after she announced she was pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Federal law provides strong protection for pregnant employees, and Dias won a $171,000 judgment in a jury trial. The ministerial exclusion was found not definitive in that trial, in part because she was a computer teacher.

In Oakland, the expiring 2013-14 contract said clearly that employee “shall perform his/her duties as a minister and steward of principles characteristic of an educator in a Catholic school, including, without limitation, teaching the doctrines, principles and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, conduct himself/herself in accord with these Catholic standards, respect for authority and others consistent with Catholic teachings.”

The language is virtually identical in the 2014-15 contract.

Cincinnati’s new contract for the 2014-15 school year specifies that teachers must agree “to exemplify Catholic principles and to 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.”

Small demonstrations in Cincinnati in support of Richard Hague, a high-school teacher who has refused to sign his contract, have generated substantial media coverage. But Andriacco downplayed the controversy as “a tempest in a teapot,” noting that, in most of the archdiocese’s schools, “everyone signed” the new contract.


The Power of Influence

Soon after he was named a bishop by Pope Francis a year ago, Bishop Barber visited many schools in his diocese and produced an outline of his thoughts in a September 2013 column for The Catholic Voice.

“How do we encounter Jesus in our schools?” the bishop asked rhetorically, answering: “In the person of the teacher, staff member or coach.” Bishop Barber cited Cardinal John Henry Newman, who noted in his famous sermon that personal influence is “the means of propagating the truth.”    

Bishop Barber reiterated this point in his May 29 interview with the Register.

“Every teacher is a role model for the students, whether they are teaching P.E. or math,” he emphasized. “The classroom is their pulpit, and they will help form their students as young adults.”

Register staff contributed to this story.

Register correspondent Al Donner writes from California.