Religion

01.24.14

Eastside Catholic: Break the Rules All You Want, Unless You’re Gay

A Catholic high school cited its vice principal’s same-sex marriage as the reason for firing him. But what about everyone else violating church doctrine?

During my freshman year at Eastside Catholic High School, in Bellevue, Washington, my unmarried science teacher got pregnant. Despite the dearth of decent sex education, most of us could figure out what had happened. A few students wondered whether the school would fire her; unless this was some sort of miracle, we were pretty sure that having a baby out of wedlock was a big no-no. Fortunately for my teacher and her child, the closest thing to an official condemnation was from an English teacher who pondered during a lesson on Greek mythology whether any swans had been seen stalking the science building.

Ten years later, Eastside’s laissez-faire Catholicism has taken a hard right turn. On December 20, the school’s vice principal and swim coach, Mark Zmuda, was forced to resign after it came to light that he had married his longtime boyfriend over the previous summer. In an e-mail to an alumnus, Principal Polly Skinner explained that the Eastside was “bound by Catholic teaching regarding same-sex marriage.”

Bound by teachings on same-sex marriage, yes, but there was apparently some wiggle room on the issue of marriage in general. Before Zmuda resigned, school president Sister Mary Tracy offered him a choice: he could keep his job, but only if he and his husband filed for divorce. It wouldn’t do to have a gay, married vice principal working at a Catholic school, but Sister Mary could somehow make do with a gay divorcée.

The school has couched its response to the ensuing controversy—hundreds of students walked out of class after the popular vice principal’s resignation was announced—in the fact that the school’s affiliation with the Archdiocese of Seattle left it no choice but to follow Church doctrine on the issue of gay marriage. Additionally, the employee handbook (PDF) states that “the public behaviors of our faculty and staff must be at all times consistent with the values and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Whether the school’s First Amendment right to practice religion freely trumps Washington State’s robust anti-discrimination laws is a matter for the courts to decide, but even a cursory look at Eastside’s personnel practices show that the school is picking and choosing just what counts as behavior “inconsistent” with Church teachings. Just off the top of my head, I can recall teachers who became pregnant outside of marriage, teachers who advocated for the death penalty, teachers who handed out condoms to students, even a few openly gay teachers—if you count an Indigo Girls bumper sticker on your desk as a mechanism for coming out. Abuse allegations against teachers, extramarital affairs by board members, even student-produced sex tapes were hushed-up and hidden from sight.

In every case, the school demurred or ignored any conflict with church doctrine. In fact, after a school choreographer recently announced that she was engaged to her girlfriend, Eastside announced that she was “welcome” to continue her employment. So, Eastside: are you firing people for not comporting with church teachings, or aren’t you? Because it’s time to preach or get off the pulpit.

I’m not advocating the Spanish Inquisition in miniature, with school administrators putting educators on the rack to determine whether or not they’re on the pill. Firing an employee for violating a rule that doesn’t make sense is wrong, but selectively firing such an employee is even worse. If Eastside really wants to hang its hat on the argument that religious institutions must abide by canon law, then the school can at least actually abide by canon law. For those who say that a gay man should have known better than to work at a Catholic school in the first place, Zmuda has a good case that Eastside’s previous habit of ignoring private behavior that violated Catholic teachings led him to believe the school would take a similar “live and let live” approach to his marriage.

The school has continued to muddy the waters. Before resigning from her position on Tuesday, Sister Mary asked an ECS senior to share this comment: “I look forward to the day when no individual loses their job because they are married to a person of the same sex.”

The only group that hasn’t exercised back-bending feats of hypocrisy is the student body. Students have walked out, picketed, debated with church leaders, and are even organizing a national “Mr. Z” day, asking people across the country to wear orange on January 31. As the administration continues to waffle on whether or not the Vatican dictates its HR policy, the students continue to demonstrate Eastside’s only real leadership.