Under San Francisco's new handbook language, could gay marriage lead to dismissal?

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

by Dan Morris-Young

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If a teacher's same-sex marriage becomes public knowledge, will he or she be dismissed as an employee of a Catholic high school owned and operated by the San Francisco archdiocese?

Maybe, maybe not, according to both the archdiocesan superintendent of schools as well as the director of the archdiocese's new Office of Catholic Identity Assessment (OCIA).

"A teacher in a same-sex marriage is problematic only if the teacher goes out of his/her way to publicize it and thereby at least implicitly criticize Church doctrine," wrote OCIA director Melanie Morey in an email to NCR on Feb. 13.

"Family and friends may know about this marriage, but that does not make it public in the sense the word is used in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In order for it to be a cause for some intervention by the school, the teacher has to go out of his/her way to emphasize that the position of the Catholic church is wrong," Morey wrote.

As San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone "pointed out and as every lawyer knows, what happens in any particular case depends on the particular circumstances of the case," she wrote.

"Another way of saying this," she added, "is that just because it is 'no secret' or 'publicly known' that someone is living in a situation that is not in accord with Catholic teaching, that does not mean that it would be a subject of professional discipline. The question is whether the teacher did some intentional action to make it public, such that it represents a public challenge to the church's teaching itself."

The degree to which personal lives of the employees of the four high schools that are under direct archdiocesan jurisdiction might be increasingly scrutinized has been one of the more stridently debated issues following the Feb. 3 release of the archbishop's new faculty handbook section, "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church."

The handbook statement says "administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or no faith are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church doctrine and practice. It also calls on "administrators, faculty and staff who are Catholics" to "not only avoid public contradiction of their status as professional agents in the mission of Catholic education," but to also "conform their hearts, minds and consciences, as well as their public and private behavior, ever more closely to the truths taught by the Catholic Church."

Educators are also warned to "refrain from participation in organizations that call themselves 'Catholic' but support or advocate issues or causes contrary" to church teaching.

The same-sex marriage question takes on wider significance in light of Cordileone's high-profile work as chair of the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. He strongly supported the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act which the Supreme Court struck down in June 2013.

The archbishop also championed Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative barring same-sex marriage. The legislation was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. 

Morey was expanding on responses by Cordileone to questions he fielded following a Feb. 6 keynote address to an archdiocesewide Catholic high school teacher convocation held at San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

SHCP is one of the four archdiocesan-owned high schools. The others are Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Marin Catholic in Kentfield and Junipero Serra in San Mateo. There are 10 other Catholic high schools sponsored by religious communities in the archdiocese.

Cordileone told the more than 350 high school teachers in attendance that alleged misconduct or straying from guidelines and specific church teachings outlined in the 2015-16 faculty handbook of the four high schools will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

During the nearly 45-minute question-and-answer period, Cordileone said he would "not want to pre-judge any situation."

"Mistakes happen," he said, "and they can be corrected."

As "extreme situations" that might dictate an employee's quick dismissal, he listed escorting a person into an abortion clinic, distributing contraceptives to a student, and "joining a white supremacist group."

Handbook language critics have accused the archdiocese of impinging on individuals' consciences, of repressing open discussion, and of targeting the non-heterosexual community.

Cordileone and other archdiocesan officials have stressed that teachers are not being required to sign a loyalty oath or a statement agreeing with the handbook language.

The 15 "affirm and believe" segments within the 2,000-word statement apply to the schools as institutions "not [to] all individuals in the institutions," wrote the archbishop in a cover letter to teachers. The letter acknowledged that non-Catholics and many Catholics do not accept all church teachings.

In a question-and-answer feature about the handbook carried in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, one response said: "The Archdiocese has no intention of 'rooting out' those who are not Catholic or those who do not assent completely to Catholic teaching."

Developed by Cordileone, the "affirm and believe" declarations center on what he terms "hot button issues." The distillations, among other things, condemn homosexual relations, same-sex marriage, abortion, artificial birth control, "artificial reproductive technology," women's ordination, and human cloning.

Archdiocesan statements have noted that the faculty handbook language is not part of teacher contracts per se. The collective bargaining agreement for the four schools is currently being negotiated.

Some legal experts have said faculty handbook language does have legal bearing, however.

In the Seattle archdiocese, Eastside Catholic School vice principal Mark Zmuda was dismissed in December 2013 after his same-sex marriage came to light.

He later filed suit against the Seattle archdiocese and the school for discriminatory firing and unspecified damages. Among the suit's claims was that the Eastside handbook and website both stated the school "would not discriminate on the basis of an employee or applicant's race, religion, creed, color, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation or any other status of condition protected by local, state or federal laws."

An out-of-court settlement was reached in November. Terms were not disclosed.

Maureen Huntington, San Francisco archdiocesan schools superintendent, said: "We have teachers and other employees involved in relationships that are not in sync with the teachings of the Catholic church."

"Unless these relationships become public and scandalous to the community, no one is going to address their situation," she told NCR on Feb. 13. "If their personal situation becomes public and scandalous to the community -- meaning they are speaking or acting in a manner that clearly sets them in opposition to the teachings of the church -- we definitely would address this with the employee."

"Complaints would be handled in the same manner they are handled now," she added. "The complaint goes to the school administration. ... A review of the complaint would commence and if corrective action is needed, it would be administered. Corrective action could be in the form of a corrective conversation, letter of reprimand, suspension with or without pay, or possible termination -- the same process that we use currently with our employees for employment or behavioral problems."

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast Correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Will same-sex marriages lead to firings?.

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