Catholic school won't fire transgender teacher

by Dan Morris-Young

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The administration and sponsoring religious community of San Francisco’s Mercy High School support the continued employment of an English teacher who recently came out as a transgender male, says a letter released to school parents Wednesday night.

 In a statement released to NCR Thursday afternoon, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said that he felt that the school officials’ decision falls within the “legitimate range of prudential judgment.”

The letter to parents from the president of the 16-state West Midwest Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas said that the religious community that sponsors the school, the school administration and the president of the school board of directors support the continued employment of English department chair, Gabriel Stein-Bodenheimer.

Regional administrator Mercy Sr. Laura Reicks said by phone that school officials and Stein-Bodenheimer had hoped to handle the situation on a “low-key basis,” but because news outlets had caught wind of the situation, they thought it best to bring parents up to speed in the May 12 letter.

Stein-Bodenheimer told NCR on May 12 that he came forward to Mercy High School administrators in October, which prompted conversation and planning on how to best share his gender identity. He had been established as female since joining the faculty in 2012.

“Because some students and parents, faculty and staff may appreciate having assistance with processing their views regarding the teacher, who identifies as a transgender man, we have arranged for counselors to be available for you this week at the school,” wrote Reicks.  

She said there would also “be an optional informal meeting with the administrative team and me for parents between 6 and 7:30 Rist Hall” on campus May 12.

According to Sheila King, principal of Sheila King Public Relations who has worked with Mercy High School, “at no time was firing on the table” in regard to Stein-Bodenheimer.

In her letter, Reicks wrote, “We also believe the Sisters of Mercy’s statement of Catholic Identity for our secondary schools underscores the importance of quality relationships for everyone associated with the School.  And, we strive to witness to mercy when we honor the dignity of each person in a welcoming culture that pursues integrity of word and deed.”

The Mercy Sisters also sponsor Mercy High School in Burlingame, another all-girls campus.  The two Mercy schools are two of the 10 Catholic high schools within the San Francisco archdiocese that are private or sponsored by religious communities.  Four others are owned and directly administered by the archdiocese.

In his May 12 statement, Cordileone said he was “grateful that leadership of the Mercy Sisters spoke to me in advance and explained their reasoning and their plan on how to address the situation. In so doing the sisters strongly affirmed our Catholic beliefs and values and that they and the school do not advocate for policies or causes that contradict these values and beliefs.”

Cordileone continued, “Often in such situations a balance must be struck in a way that distinct values are upheld, such as mercy and truth, or institutional integrity and respect for personal decisions affecting one’s life. In this particular personnel matter I am thankful to the sisters for seeking a response consistent with mercy and Gospel values and the corporate identity of the school as a Catholic institution of secondary education.”

In a press release issued May 11 by the school and the West Midwest Mercy Community, Stein-Bodenheimer is quoted as saying, “I honor my responsibilities as a teacher in Mercy High School’s English Department as well as my own authenticity.”

According to the release, Stein-Bodenheimer is a Los Angeles native “who follows his family’s Jewish tradition of faith” and who has “confirmed a commitment required of every teacher to honor the Catholic identity of the school.”

The school’s employment contract “specifies a teacher must be familiar with and support the philosophy and values of the school, Sisters of Mercy and the Catholic Church. It does not, however, require a teacher to be Catholic,” the media statement said.

“I love teaching at Mercy High School,” Stein-Bodenheimer said May 12. “For my own sense of authenticity in the classroom, it was important to name myself, to identify myself, to bring the whole self into the aspect of my teaching. It is important to speak to this issue, not to be silent.”

The educator said he has “been surprised and pleased at the amount of support from the sisters, from faculty members, from students, from the administration. It has all been very positive.”

Stein-Bodenheimer said his May 12 literature classes had “talked about The House on Mango Street” and that “there has been a certain amount of buzz, but classes have continued on as usual. We have finals coming on, so final projects are due and so on.”

Named department chair last year, Stein-Bodenheimer “is a very faith-filled man, and very conscientious and committed about his teaching career,” Reicks told NCR.

The regional Mercy leader described discussions with Cordileone as “courteous.”

“He listened well to our input and why we are committed to responding to each person with dignity and mercy. He was a good listener, and he raised a couple of questions. He indicated he had been expecting” something along the lines of the Mercy High School development “and appreciated we talked to him about it.”

She emphasized the inspirational impact of Pope Francis’ “calls for mercy and his lived example.”

Asked about how the affirmed employment of a transgender man might play against stories about gender-identity issues leading to persons being dismissed from Catholic institutions, Reicks said, “We went to the constitution of the Sisters of Mercy, to our core values, and everything that is part of who we are. It was just obvious that our position is support for the rights and dignity of each person. So, it was an obvious decision for us. We could not have decided any other way. It was not based on anybody else, but who we are as Sisters of Mercy.”

Asked the same question, Stein-Bodenheimer said, “I certainly recognize the climate we live in, and I can only speak for myself, but I am pleased to be able to continue in my capacity as an educator and department chair.”

Diane Lawrence, Mercy High’s board of directors chair, said the 10-member group was unanimous in its support of Stein-Bodenheimer.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is]

This story replaces an earlier version with extensive additional information throughout.



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