Vice principal fired for same-sex marriage files lawsuit

Updated at 5:00 p.m., central, with comments from the archdiocese.  

In a lawsuit scheduled to be formally announced Friday, the former vice principal of Eastside Catholic School near Seattle — fired in December after his same-sex civil marriage became known — charges that his termination violated state law, was carried out “to make an example out of” him, and went against policies of the school's employee handbook.

The suit being filed by Mark Zmuda names the school and the Seattle archdiocese as defendants.

The school plans to file a “simultaneous” motion in King County Superior Court to dismiss the case, according to Mike Patterson, the school attorney. The motion argues “the court does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the plaintiff's claims without violating the First Amendment” and hearing it would “impermissibly entangle the court in Catholic doctrine.”

Among statements in Zmuda's filing:

  • Because its handbook and website have stated that 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 or condition protected by local state or federal laws” … “ECS should have reasonably expected that its employees would rely on these promises of non-discrimination and exercise their legal rights to marry”;
  • During a meeting in November with Eastside administrators Zmuda was told his marriage last summer to his longtime partner was “none of their (ECS's) business” and that he “had 'full support' from the ECS administration”;
  • The school president, Holy Names of Mary and Jesus Sr. Mary Tracy, told Zmuda about a week later that he would be “terminated unless he filed for a divorce,” but also that “if he were to divorce his husband, ECS would pay the costs of holding a 'commitment ceremony' in place of a wedding;
  • On Dec. 16 Tracy -- who in January resigned as school president -- told Zmuda that she had met with Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain “and others” to discuss the situation and that “Mr. Zmuda would be terminated because of his status as a married gay man,” and that the decision “came from the archbishop, and not the school.”
  • The school president called a faculty meeting Dec. 19 “to inform ECS employees of Mr. Zmuda's termination” during which she “confirmed ... the decision to terminate Mr. Zmuda was made by the archdiocese and that her 'hands were tied'.”

A 47-page response to the lawsuit prepared by school attorneys disputes Zmuda's contention that his job duties -- which included that of swim coach -- were “purely administrative and unrelated to any religious practice or activity.”

It states that the employee handbook makes it clear that employees are to uphold Catholic teaching and practice in all aspects of their work.

The response also said Zmuda was asked to remove “inappropriate” Facebook photos brought to school officials' attention by concerned parents in January 2013, and that the educator had referred to his same-sex spouse as “friend” and also “roommate” on school contact forms.

Titled “Eastside Catholic School's Answer and Affirmative Defenses,” the document addresses each numbered paragraph of the lawsuit.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the archdiocese maintains it "did not direct, nor does it have the ability or authority to direct, employment decisions made by Eastside Catholic School, but the archdiocese believes the school's decision is consistent with Catholic teaching."

The statement said the archdiocese "will ask the court to dismiss" the suit.  
"In his complaint, Mr. Zmuda correctly acknowledges that the archdiocese of Seattle is separately incorporated from Eastside Catholic School.  In addition, his claim states correctly that neither the archbishop nor his delegates sponsor, direct, administer, or manage Eastside Catholic School," the release said.   
On Jan. 15 Sartain issued a statement supporting the school, noting that asking Zmuda to resign "was made after a great deal of prayer and consultation."
"Leaders of Catholic schools are charged with the responsibility of both imparting and modeling" the Catholic Church's teaching, Sartain said, adding,"In no way was their goal to be discriminatory to anyone but to be faithful to their mission as a Catholic school...The archdiocese supports their decision. The decision has been misunderstood and mischaracterized by some, and we now have an opportunity to help our students learn even more about Catholic teaching."
[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast Correspondent.] 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here