Teachers union: Revised faculty handbook could reduce San Francisco legal protections

This story appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

by Dan Morris-Young

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The executive council of the teachers union representing the four high schools administered by the San Francisco archdiocese released a statement Monday to members that says a revised faculty handbook section on church teaching and practice could significantly reduce their legal protections against discrimination.

Over the weekend, the archdiocese officially released the working draft of a revised and expanded statement on church teachings meant to supplant a controversial handbook statement developed by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and made public Feb. 3.

In a May 29 cover letter accompanying the recast narrative, the archbishop wrote that he did not "envision this being the exact final version" and that he wanted teachers and others "to reflect upon it, discuss it, and give some reaction to it."

"I have initiated a discussion with your Presidents and Principals on how best to go about this, and will continue to work with them on it," he wrote.

Copies of the rewritten faculty handbook statement and cover letter were widely leaked and reported upon in mid-May. The texts made public by the archdiocese appear to nearly identical to those documents. 

The union leadership memo says that "while the most inflammatory rhetoric" such as "gravely evil" has been removed from the originally proposed handbook insertion, the new text "uses language regarding the sanctity of marriage to lay out ... condemnation of homosexuals, divorce, contraception, and of other choices made in one's private life."

Many criticized the initial statement for what they called an overemphasis on sexual topics, lack of sensitivity for its language's impact on the gay community, disregard for the role of conscience, overstepping into private lives, and flying in the face of Pope Francis' emphasis on mercy and inclusivity.

In his cover letter, the archbishop thanks teachers "for all you do for our young people in such a critical stage of their growth" and apologized for "lack of foresight on my part" for the "several unintended consequences" generated by his original document, which "created the tensions we have been experiencing."

In February, Cordileone announced he would convene a group of high school theology teachers to rework his original statement to employ a more pastoral tone, make its content more nuanced and readily absorbed, and to add a social justice element.

The resulting document was largely written by a five-teacher "context committee" and more than doubles the length of the first, nearly 2,000-word statement.

The Monday union message says in the new handbook version, "academics are a secondary goal," and that it "ties all faculty and staff" to the "religious mission of the schools (regardless of what they teach or their particular job)" in a way that "makes it easier for the employer to make a stronger claim that all faculty and staff are 'ministers', regardless of the fact that the term 'minister' has been removed."

"In practical terms," the union leadership continued, "this means that it could be possible for the archdiocese to terminate the employment of a faculty or staff member who, for example, divorces, utilizes in vitro-fertilization or contraception -- all connected to one's personal life, not their duties at school (the Archdiocese, when asked how they would treat these matters, have stated that each would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis -- what they have not said is that they would not discriminate based on these personal life issues). In short, it could allow the Archbishop to act in violation of state and federal employment and discrimination laws and chances are that the faculty or staff member would have no legal recourse -- a recourse enjoyed by other teachers and school employees across California and the rest of the country."

The union warning concluded, "It is important that we understand these potential consequences so that we are well informed in our response and actions to the Archbishop's campaign to transform our schools."

When the archdiocese released the Feb. 3 faculty handbook statement, it also put forth three clauses it wanted to include in the teachers' collective bargaining agreement, one of which described teachers and staff as "ministers."

Union and labor law experts said the term could distance faculty and staff from legal protections by making the employees appear to be official church functionaries.

The revised handbook draft's preamble says the new statement offers "a short compendium of some important teachings" and follows "the general structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

Asked about the status of the ongoing teacher contract negotiations with the archdiocese, executive council head Lisa Dole told NCR that health care, wage levels and the "ministerial exception" continue to be prominent topics.

"There have been weeks when I have thought we were just steps away from being done, and there have been other weeks when I feel we have taken 10 steps backwards," she said.

Dole, a faculty member at Marin Catholic in Kentfield, said the terms "minister" and "ministry" used in "the initial language for both the [collective bargaining agreement] and the handbook are no longer proposed to be a part of either document. But, unfortunately, the ministerial exception and the ability of an employer to invoke it is more complicated than just the use of the terms in written documents."

"The removal of those terms was helpful," she added, "however, it is not that simple. Our members understandably continue to be very concerned regarding the intent of any additional language. We continue to exchange proposals in search of language that is acceptable to both sides."

Jesuit Fr. John Piderit, archdiocesan vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, told NCR in May that the archdiocese would decline comment on the negotiations while they were still taking place.

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

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