Columbus Diocese Takes Heat for Firing Lesbian Teacher

The lawyer for the fired gym teacher has filed an anti-discrimination complaint with the city’s Community Relations Commission and might also file a lawsuit.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio.
St. Joseph's Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio. (photo: Wikipedia)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bishop Frederick Campbell and other school officials in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, could face criminal charges under the city of Columbus’ anti-discrimination laws for upholding the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality by firing a lesbian gym teacher.

The diocese has come under fire for terminating the contract of Carla Hale, 57, a physical education teacher employed for 19 years at Bishop Watterson High School, after learning of Hale’s “spousal relationship” with another woman. The diocese fired Hale after an unnamed Bishop Watterson parent forwarded to diocesan officials a local obituary for Hale’s mother Jeanne Roe, which listed Hale’s lesbian companion, Julie, as one of her survivors.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Hale’s attorney, Thomas Tootle, told reporters that he would be filing a complaint with Columbus’ Community Relations Commission, arguing the diocese violated the city’s anti-discrimination law by firing Hale over her sexual orientation.

Tootle told the Register that he wants Hale reinstated at her job and might also file a lawsuit.

“There are many things that the Catholic Church considers immoral, but why is this treated any differently than adultery, divorce or birth control?” Tootle said. Although he declined to provide evidence of the diocese applying a double standard, he said, “It does seem to be a situation where the Church picks and chooses like they are at the buffet.”

Columbus’ anti-discrimination ordinance criminalizes discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” and has no exemptions for religious employers. Violators face prosecution for a first-degree misdemeanor, a criminal charge that carries up to six months jail time and a $1,000 fine.

“The Catholic diocese is facing a situation where simply living according to its long-held, very open and very public religious beliefs could somehow be a crime in the city of Columbus. That’s very disconcerting,” Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the Register. The Becket Fund is a Washington-based law firm that specializes in cases involving religious liberty, but it is not representing the Columbus Diocese at this time.

Blomberg said the Columbus anti-discrimination ordinance goes far beyond standard federal and state non-discrimination laws by imposing criminal penalties on employers, especially religious employers who “might require a statement of belief regarding marriage and family that some might find offensive.”

Blomberg said the law was “unclear” as to whether Bishop Campbell and other diocesan personnel would be liable for jail time or fines.

“It seems likely it would fall on the responsible decision-makers,” he said. “But who those would be, in this context, I am not aware.”


First Amendment Issues

Blomberg believes that the law looks like a clear case of violating First Amendment protections of religious liberty. Taken at face value, he said, the city’s ordinance forbids any employer from making any policy regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.

“That means you can’t choose your priest based on their adherence to Roman Catholic teaching about sexual ethics,” Blomberg added.

He said one case that would be considered, if the ordinance’s constitutionality were challenged, is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. The court recognized the “interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission,” when it ruled government entities could not use employment anti-discrimination laws to force religious groups to retain employees with a ministerial function.

The case could be relevant, as Hale and all teachers employed by the diocese were required to have “Introductory Catechist Certification” by fall 2012, as specified by their contracts with the diocese. Ultimately, a court would have to take a closer look to see if the Hosanna-Tabor decision applies in this case, Blomberg said.

“It does look like the Catholic Church can’t be the Catholic Church in Columbus without violating this ordinance,” Blomberg said. “I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, but the language is so broad it does seem hard to see how those employment contracts can be enforced in certain circumstances.”


Diocesan Policies

Carla Hale has revealed that the diocese terminated her on March 28, two weeks after conducting an inquiry, in which Hale confirmed she was living in a same-sex relationship. The termination letter released by Principal Marian Hutson told Hale, “You were not terminated for being gay, but for the spousal relationship publicized in the newspaper, which is against Church teachings."

“That had nothing to do with my ability to teach and coach. I don’t think I’m immoral; I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s unethical,” Hale said in an interview with local television.

An agreement between the diocese and its teachers' union, the Central Ohio Association of Catholic Educators (COACE), states that the diocese has the right to terminate an employee’s contract “at any time” for engaging in “immorality, for serious unethical conduct or for willful and/or persistent violations of reasonable regulations” set by the school or diocese.

Diocesan policy also states that employees “are expected to be examples of moral behavior and professionalism” in keeping with “the tenets of the Catholic Church.”

Kathleen Mahony, president of COACE, confirmed to the Register that the diocese stipulates its right in the teachers’ contract to terminate an employee for immorality. However, Mahony declined to comment when asked if other teachers had been fired for violating other Church teachings, such as pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations.

But Mahony did affirm it was “correct” that any teacher signing the contract would have an understanding of the diocese’s expectations of their personal conduct.

Hale told reporters Wednesday that Principal Hutson met with her Tuesday evening and reaffirmed the school’s decision to terminate her contract. Hale will now appeal the decision to the COACE grievance committee.

“The Catholic Church has their own perceptions on immorality, but when you look at the contract, who decides that term, ‘immorality’? That, ultimately, will be decided by an arbitrator,” Tootle said.


Catholic Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman” and must be open to “the transmission of life” (2360) in marriage. According to the Catechism, homosexual persons must be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” but it explains at the same time that homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (2357).

The diocese so far has refrained from commenting on Hale’s dismissal. George Jones, a spokesman for the diocese, told the Register that the diocese was in the midst of the grievance process and would not be offering comment at this time.

But Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that promotes Catholic identity in schools and higher education, said the diocese was “paying the price for being Catholic.”

“Catholic education, by its very nature, must uphold Catholic teaching, or else it’s not Catholic education,” Reilly said.

“Catholic schools are increasingly under pressure to respond to a cultural understanding of sexuality that doesn’t conform to Catholic teaching,” Reilly said. “If anything, too many Catholic schools have loosened their standards for Catholic teachers.”

Recently, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has come under fire for enforcing the “faith and morals” clause of its own contracts over employees who have been discovered violating the Church’s moral teachings. Within the past two years, under Archbishop Dennis Schnurr’s leadership, the archdiocese has fired two teachers, one for artificial insemination, the other for extra-marital sex, and a vice principal who publicized on a blog his support for same-sex “marriage.”

An online petition to reinstate Hale at Bishop Watterson High School has attracted more than 44,000 signatures. Further, the public outcry has generated threats against diocesan and school personnel.

The diocese confirmed reports in the Columbus Dispatch that the high school had received threatening communications and that Columbus police had recommended police protection as a safety precaution.

“The Columbus police are aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the school,” Jones told the Register. He revealed that the diocese was also monitoring communications to diocesan employees for any threats to their safety.

Hale has condemned the threats against the diocese and Catholic high school in a statement, calling for supporters to “embrace tolerance and not violence.”


Standing Firm

Reilly said that Catholic schools are facing increasing pressure to cave to the culture’s understanding of sexuality, but he praised Bishop Campbell for standing up for the Church’s teaching.

“The bishop is doing what Catholic bishops need to do. Unfortunately, they’re facing an intolerant society that will not allow Catholic institutions to be Catholic,” he said. “This is one of many problems that are going to come up over the next few years.”

Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.