Should Catholic Schools Be Allowed to Discriminate?

December 12, 2013 | 9 comments

The short answer: Of course they should.

Now, let me define what I mean by “discriminate.” In one sense, to discriminate means to note a difference between two things. When a Catholic school doesn’t hire an incompetent applicant, they discriminate between that applicant and a more qualified one (just as your taste buds discriminate between chocolate and sulfur). However, when most people think of discrimination, they think of unfair discrimination, or using an irrelevant difference in order to judge someone’s worth.

So what is the difference between fair discrimination and unfair discrimination?

I ask that question because in the last few years several Catholic schools have been accused of unfair discrimination. The complaints usually come when a school terminates an employee who broke his employment contract by engaging in behavior that violates the principles of the Catholic Faith.

The latest example came this past Friday when foreign language teacher Michael Griffin was fired from Holy Ghost Preparatory High School in Pennsylvania (pictured above). Apparently, Mr. Griffin announced in an e-mail to administrators that he was going to be late to school because he was on his way to file for a license in order to marry his boyfriend.

Similar terminations at Catholic schools include a couple at a Massachusetts school who were fired for conceiving a child outside of marriage and an Indiana woman who was fired for trying to use the school’s health plan to pay for in vitro fertilization treatment.

Fair or Unfair Discrimination?

I think it’s clear that these are cases of fair discrimination because these teachers were not terminated for who they were. They were terminated for their actions.

Take the case of Mr. Griffin. The Huffington Post says, “[Mr.] Griffin was fired essentially for being gay,” and lists the story under the topic “fired for being gay.” But Mr. Griffin wasn’t fired for “being gay.”

If a school fired a teacher because it found out he attended Courage, a Catholic support group for people who experience same-sex attractions, then that would be a case of firing someone “for being gay.” Instead, Mr. Griffin was fired because he chose to publicly violate Church teaching and took steps to marry another man. This is also true in the other cases I listed where teachers violated their employment contracts by engaging in behaviors that violate what the Church teaches.

Critics of these schools have put forward several arguments for the view that these cases are unfair discrimination. Let’s examine some of those arguments:

1. Your employer has no right to tell you what you can and can’t do outside of work.

Depending on the state where a worker lives and the public or private nature of his work, it is true that employers generally cannot intrude into their employee’s private lives. However, if the employee’s off-duty actions reflect negatively on the company, then, in most cases, disciplinary action can be taken.

Because of the nature of their work, Catholic schoolteachers represent their schools both on and off work time. If a teacher were engaged in scandalous public behavior that violates the school’s mission, then it would make sense to let that teacher go. Furthermore, these teachers usually sign a contract with a “morality clause,” and breaking that contract can also be grounds for either termination or the decision to not renew the contract.

2. Morality clauses in contracts are illegal. Catholic schools shouldn’t force their employees to uphold Catholic values outside of work. As long as what these employees do is legal, then it is none of the Church’s business.

An employee can represent his employer in an unfavorable way even if he is engaged in something that is legal. An example might include being publicly associated with a porn company outside of office hours. Likewise, most companies don’t allow their employees to work for a competitor, even if such work is legal, because it creates a conflict of interest.

In addition, morality clauses are well known in the world of contracts. Lance Armstrong lost many of his sponsors precisely because his drug use violated the morality clause in his contract with those sponsors. Morality clauses protect companies from being harmed by employees who damage their reputations. A Catholic school that is unable to terminate a teacher who creates a scandal could be harmed when the parents of prospective students choose to not enroll their children in the school for that reason.

However, I think Catholic schools should carefully explain to their teachers (who themselves may not have been well-catechized) what does and does not violate a morality clause in an employment contract. This is especially the case with IVF and other medical practices that some good-hearted Catholics may mistakenly think are not immoral.

3. I bet these schools don’t fire teachers who use contraception or masturbate.

Just because some teachers might violate their contracts in a private and undetectable way does not mean teachers who violate their contracts in a public way cannot be disciplined.

4. Terminating employees for their religious beliefs, marital status, or pregnancies constitutes illegal discrimination under the 1964 and 1968 civil rights acts. Choosing to not hire someone based on these classes is also illegal.

It’s true that employers usually cannot base hiring or termination decisions on the fact that an employee belongs to a “protected class” of people (such as belonging to a certain race, religion, nationality, sex, etc.).  But there is an exception.

It has long been held in the United States that when it comes to hiring practices there is a “ministerial exception” for religious organizations. In order to protect freedom of religion, the government cannot tell churches who can and cannot be ministers. This is why radical supporters of female ordination cannot sue the Catholic Church for the “job” of priesthood.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the ministerial exception could also be applied to teachers in parochial schools, even if they primarily teach a nonreligious subject.

I think that makes perfect sense. In fact, more Catholic schools should view their teachers as “ministers of the gospel” along with being academic instructors. Theological topics can easily find their way into other subjects like art, English, literature, history, and science. The teaching of Romance languages like Spanish or French, which is what Mr. Griffin taught before he was terminated, could easily incorporate Catholic materials originally written in those languages.   

Even if they teach a subject like calculus, Catholic schoolteachers are still respected by their students as role models. These teachers have ample opportunities to share their worldview with students before and after class, such as when the math students erupt into an impromptu discussion about the morning assembly presentation on chastity.

Genuinely Catholic

Pope John Paul II said during a 2004 visit to the U.S. bishops:

It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the Church's institutions be genuinely Catholic: Catholic in their self-understanding and Catholic in their identity. All those who share in the apostolates of such institutions, including those who are not of the faith, should show a sincere and respectful appreciation of that mission which is their inspiration and ultimate raison d’être

Catholic schools have the right and the duty to protect their Catholic identity by retaining employees who, at the bare minimum, do not violate what the Church teaches. However, the ideal would be for those employees to not merely tolerate the Faith but to celebrate it and serve as a witness of it in their classrooms.


Ever since he converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen, Trent Horn has had a passion for explaining and defending the Faith. After earning a degree in history from Arizona State University, Trent traveled the country training pro-life advocates on college campuses to engage opponents in...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Valerie Staples - San Diego, California

Fantastic blog post Trent. Thanks for making the clarification on discrimination. Viewers of the main stream, or should I say lame stream media, would be better off if they understood that difference.

December 12, 2013 at 2:19 pm PST
#2  James Gallegos - Cimarron, New Mexico

Great Answer! Thank you making it clear and understandable.

December 12, 2013 at 4:53 pm PST
#3  Henry Ashley - Alton, Illinois

"I think it’s clear that these are cases of fair discrimination because these teachers were not terminated for who they were. They were terminated for their actions."

Your actions are part of who you are.

"It has long been held in the United States that when it comes to hiring practices there is a “ministerial exception” for religious organizations."

I think at some point we have to be honest enough to ask why our religion gets legal benefits. How on earth are we still tax exempt? I am willing enough to contribute to the community. That is the core message of our religion.

December 12, 2013 at 5:42 pm PST
#4  David Sawatzky - Winkler, North Dakota

It's a false premise to suggest that even if it WAS "unfair" discrimination, it would therefore somehow matter.

Under the assumption that Catholic school are private businesses, they have a right to discriminate in any way they want, be it "fair" or "unfair".

It's their private institution, they set the rules, and if you don't like it, you don't have to work or attend school there, as no human right exists to work or attend school at XXX private school.

December 12, 2013 at 6:18 pm PST
#5  David Sharples - Attleboro, Massachusetts

Trent,
Good article… discrimination in and of itself is not necessarily bad; it’s unjust discrimination that is wrong, not just discrimination, and tolerance is not necessarily good. If I discriminate by not hiring a carpenter that applies a high tolerance (off by inches) to his work, that’s just discrimination, not unjust. Catholic schools have a right to discriminate, as long as it’s just.

Now if catholic secondary schools, as part of the economics, a lack of Sisters, and an inability to think outside of the box.. begin to favor small families with one or two children, couples that use contraception and parents with money… over those who have more than one or two children, don’t use contraception, and are not wealthy.
Is that just discrimination or unjust discrimination?
David

December 13, 2013 at 7:31 am PST
#6  Stephen Kilgore - Rome, Georgia

Great post. While there are many non-Catholics who make up the student and staff bodies at many Catholic schools, the schools are still Catholic and must uphold Catholic ideals. Many parents choose to send their children to Catholic schools precisely FOR this reason.

Non-Catholic employees and the families of non-Catholic students are well aware of their decision to take up employment at or to send their child to a Catholic institution. There is usually always a public alternative, or even private, non-religious alternatives that are available to these people. In taking up employment or education in a Catholic institution, one should be ready to commit to the ideal that Catholic education does not stop at the school doorstep and that what teachers do in the public view does effect the mission of the school.

I make the assumption, although probably correctly, that the teacher in such a hypothetical instance would be a non-Catholic. If you are a practicing Catholic and an educator in a Catholic school who becomes terminated for violating a morality clause, I really have no words for you.

December 17, 2013 at 10:36 am PST
#7  charles rutan - gtosse pte. farms, Michigan

Is this what's going on at the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown U.? Is our catholicity under attack by the liberal interests in "higher" education. Abortion is one of the unjust forms of discrimination. Mother Teresa asked, "why does a baby have to die so a woman may live as she chooses?"

N.D.'s President, Fr. John Jenkins conferred an honorary law degree to pro late-term abortion advocate President Obama. Fast forward to the recent announcement that ND's is suing the federal government over being forced to pay for abortion coverage under the ACA?

Sandra Fluke wants free contraception under the ACA to be provided by Georgetown U. Law School. Are they suing too? Clearly these examples are against the core beliefs of the Catholic Church which these Universities represent.

Gods blessing on your continued work.

December 17, 2013 at 10:40 am PST
#8  Henry Ashley - Alton, Illinois

Mr. Sawatzky, of course unfair discrimination matters. If you think being unfair is okay, you have to consider what kind of a person you really are.

January 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm PST
#9  Elise Arbow - Des Moines, Washington

Great article Trent--in light of what's been happening here in the Seattle area at Eastside Catholic, it seems most Catholic school students, as well as parents (and teachers?) have no knowledge of why the Church teaches as she does regarding traditional marriage and the sanctity of all human life.....
Pray for Archbishop Sartain and the principals at our Catholic schools!

January 22, 2014 at 9:00 pm PST

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