Have you heard the one about the gay teacher who was being fired for marrying his male partner, then was told he could possibly stay on if he got a divorce? This may sound like a joke – in theory the church is equally opposed to both divorce and gay marriage – but it was an actual suggestion made to Mark Zmuda, a vice principal at the Eastside Catholic School in Seattle, Washington, who was being forced to resign from his job a few weeks ago when school administrators learned that he is both married and gay.
Zmuda didn’t go for the divorce option and was terminated despite a barrage of protest led by the school’s mostly Catholic student body. It’s unlikely (since he has refused to stop being gay) that the teacher will be reinstated, but the incident has exposed, in a very public way, the church’s willingness to be flexible on some of its principles (divorce sort of OK), while remaining totally rigid on others (gay marriage definitely not OK). More importantly, the ongoing protests surrounding Zmuda’s dismissal should make it clear to the church that singling out gay people for special (mis)treatment is not something many Catholics are prepared to go on tolerating.
In fact, just yesterday Eastside Catholic School announced that freelance drama coach Stephanie Merrow, who is engaged to another woman, is “welcome” to continue working at the school. The school is now looking for ways to prevent the Zmuda controversy from happening again.
Zmuda married his long term partner last summer, just seven months after it became legal to do so in Washington state. He continued working without incident at the school until December, when some colleagues apparently alerted school administrators of his marriage. Almost immediately after this transgression was discovered (getting married to someone you love while gay counts as a pretty major transgression in Catholic land), Zmuda was out of a job. Legal experts say the school acted within their rights – as an administrator in the school, he was obliged to abide by Catholic teachings. But while his termination may satisfy doctrinal purists, it has caused distress and confusion to many Catholics (including Zmuda himself) who are unable to reconcile the so-called Christian ethos of the church with what they apparently see as a very un-Christian act.
Since the dismissal became public, students at the school – at least some of whom must be practicing Catholics – have been staging protest rallies, sit-ins and started an online campaign to have their teacher reinstated. Even many faculty members, including the school’s president, Sister Mary Tracy, were ambivalent about the need to let go a competent and popular teacher. In a video interview with a former student, Zmuda spoke of how his colleagues stood by him the day they were told he would be leaving his job, and spent over an hour trying to come up with options that would prevent his departure. It was Sister Mary Tracy who brought up the possibility of his getting a divorce, a suggestion she later regretted but “owned”. As she explained to Seattle King5 News:
I suggested to dissolve the marriage to save his job. I was trying to hang onto him.
Ultimately, it was the Archdiocese, not the school, who made the decision that Zmuda had to go, so her efforts were in vain.
Sister Mary Tracy, most of the faculty at the school, and most of the student body are not the only local Catholics who are uncomfortable with how Zmuda was treated for being gay. Seattle’s newly elected mayor, Ed Murray, who also happens to be Catholic, gay and married, has spoken out at the protest rallies. Two other Seattle-based Catholics, Barbara Guzzo and Kirby Brown penned an op-ed for the Seattle Times calling for the teacher’s immediate reinstatement. In it, they pointed out that if the church were to fire every employee who failed to abide by Catholic doctrine (the more than 90% of practicing Catholics who use contraceptives for starters), it would be a very short-staffed institution.
In the past two years, more than 12 gay employees of Catholic institutions have lost their jobs for getting married or supporting marriage equality. One of these employees, Carla Hale, a teacher for 19 years at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, was sacked shortly after her mother’s funeral, when parents of one of her students objected to seeing her female partner’s name listed in the obituary notice. The particularly unkind way in which Hale was subsequently dismissed sparked a literal “halestorm” of protest similar to the one currently brewing for Zmuda. But the church still refused to reinstate her (Hale has since announced a settlement with the diocese).
The church will continue to ignore the protests of many in its flock surrounding terminations of employees like Hale and Zmuda, but it will do so at its peril. One of Zmuda’s former students summed up the growing discomfort among some Catholics regarding the unequal treatment of gay people in a tweet to his holiness Pope Francis, or as he is better known on twitter, @Pontifex:
Hey big guy, we need you over here in Washington. A teacher is being fired for love.
So far, the pope, who was named Man of the Year by Advocate, a prominent gay news magazine, has not weighed in on this particular situation or on any of the firings. This is a bit disappointing in light of his comments to reporters last year that “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge”? Francis also stated recently that the church had “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules”, and needed to start treating gay people with compassion and respect.
But the pope ought to know that words are meaningless if not followed by meaningful action, and none has yet been taken. For now at least, it’s people like Zmuda who are burning while Rome continues to fiddle. As more Catholics turn up the heat in protest, someday soon, the churches unkind and outdated policies are bound to backfire.