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Should Catholic Schools Be Allowed to Discriminate?

Trent Horn

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 school teachers 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.

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