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Archdiocese defends firing of gay St. Louis County teacher

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Al Fischer, music teacher at St. Ann Catholic School, fired

Al Fischer, a music teacher at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy was fired in February, 2012, after word got out that he planned to marry his male partner of 20 years in New York, one of a handful of states where gay marriage is legal. Photo by Brandon Krepel

After a teacher at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy had been fired in February for planning to marry his male partner in New York later this month, officials with the Archdiocese of St. Louis pointed to a document the teacher had signed when he applied for the job.

The document, which the archdiocese calls a "Christian Witness Statement," says employees "will witness by their public behavior, actions and words a life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church."

Teachers in parish elementary schools and Archdiocesan high schools are required to sign the Christian Witness Statement, said Angela Shelton, the Archdiocese’s community relations specialist. In addition, the parish employee handbook now includes the Christian Witness Statement, with all parish employees expected to conform publicly to the church’s teaching, she said.

Archdiocesan documents say the Christian Witness Statement 'should be used in interviewing and hiring applicants who will serve in the Archdiocese to determine their openness to its message."

Schools run by Catholic orders, Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis exist outside the authority of the St. Louis archbishop, though he is responsible for their Catholic identity.

The Catholic Church isn't the only religious institution that places strictures on the public behavior of employees.

The St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's "Morals Policy" says that "no practice or behavior inconsistent with or in conflict with individual moral and ethical conduct required by Scripture shall be tolerated from employees." Employees must sign an agreement to comply. Failure to maintain such standards "may be grounds for counseling and/or immediate dismissal from employment."

An even stricter standard of behavior applies to people who "hold positions of responsibility or positions that put them and the employer in the public eye" who are "often regarded by others as role models and exemplars of Christian leadership."

In January, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that religious employees of a religious organization cannot sue for employment discrimination, giving the organizations broad powers over those employees.

The decision involved the case of a church and school in Michigan owned and operated by a member congregation of the Missouri Synod. The case came before the court because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., on behalf of an employee — a teacher and lay minister — who had been fired after a sick leave.

At the time of the decision, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Missouri Synod, said the court, "in upholding the right of churches to select their own ministers without government interference, has confirmed a critical religious liberty in our country."

But the court's Hosanna ruling dealt with the so-called "ministerial exception," and affected only employees of religious organizations who have religious teaching authority. That makes a document like the archdiocese's Christian Witness Statement important for an institution hoping to keep in check the behavior of employees who aren't religious leaders.

Those documents place restrictions on employees, "but in general you can't waive your right not to be discriminated against," said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who argued the Hosanna-Tabor case. "If it's unlawful discrimination, having someone sign a contract may not do the church much good."

The case of the St. Ann's teacher, Al Fischer, prompted debate about religious identity and the desire of a religious organizations to guard against what they perceive to be changing secular social mores. And there's no better example of that tension than the debate over same-sex marriage.

Fischer's partner told the Post-Dispatch that the couple's relationship was not a secret at St. Ann's, and that Fischer was fired after a representative of the archdiocese overheard him talking to co-workers about his wedding plans.

The archdiocese said it supported Fischer's firing because it was "in full compliance with the Christian Witness Statement signed by every educator in the Catholic school system."

The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls homosexual acts "acts of grave depravity" and "intrinsically disordered" because they "close the sexual act to the gift of life." In 2006, the U.S. bishops said that while the church teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, 'she does distinguish between engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination. While the former is always objectively sinful, the latter is not."

The church believes that legalizing same-sex marriage denies marriage's "true nature," which, it says, "is discoverable by human reason," and confirmed by the Bible, according to a document by the bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

Fischer was originally told he would be fired March 9, the day he'd planned to marry his partner in New York. But after Fischer's partner posted St. Ann's plan to fire Fischer on Facebook on Feb. 16, Fischer was fired the next day.

One reason the date of Fischer's firing was moved up was likely the public nature of his partner's Facebook post. When that post went viral, the archdiocese was faced with a decision: Let the men get married and fire Fischer after he had actually committed a (verifiable) act in violation of Catholic teaching, or head off public scandal.

The archdiocese chose to head off public scandal, and did it again this week when Fischer was fired from a second church, his home parish of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church in Florissant, where he worked in a paid position as one of the parish's part-time music directors. The priest told Fischer that the reason he was being fired was that his situation had become "too public of an issue," Fischer's partner told the Post-Dispatch. The priest may not have said so, but Fischer's impending wedding had officially become a scandal.

Scandal, as defined by the catechism of the Catholic Church, is "an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil" and can be traced back to a scene in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus curses the scandalous.

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me," he says, "it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea."

The church believes that if it allows the people who work for it to behave in a way that's contrary to church teaching, that behavior could be emulated by other Catholics. The perils are great for both sides.

Large institutions that hope to attract talented employees — Catholic hospitals that want to hire the best nurses, for instance — may see an economic benefit to being less demanding about the behavior of their employees. But at what cost to the consistency of their mission?

Those whose lives don't conform to the deeply held and First Amendment-protected beliefs of the religious institutions they work for can't be surprised when that institution lets them go for publicly flouting those beliefs.


Editor's Note: This version clarifies which employees of the Archdiocese of St. Louis must sign the witness statement. A prior version said all employees had been required to sign it over the last 30 years.


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