'You're Fired!': Why It's Time to Stop Religious Schools From Having Their Cake and Eating It, Too
Let’s say you work as a teacher in a Catholic school in Cincinnati and your old friend, who is gay, invites you to New York to attend his same-sex wedding. You attend and snap some photos of this happy event, which you post on Facebook.
The school can fire you for that.
Let’s say you have another friend who, along with her husband, has struggled to conceive. The couple uses in vitro fertilization and gets good news: They’re going to have a baby. You use Twitter to send a message of congratulations to your friend.
The school can fire you for that.
The Cincinnati Archdiocese recently released new employment contracts for teachers. They spell out, in detail, behaviors that constitute a firing offense. The list includes things like having sex out of wedlock, being gay, undergoing artificial insemination and “any conduct or lifestyle which would reflect discredit on or cause scandal to the school or be in contradiction to Catholic doctrine or morals.”
Worse yet, merely supporting these things in any public forum can bring down the axe. The list also includes “improper” use of social media to support activities the church leadership frowns upon.
If the Catholic school system were truly private, it would have the right to impose these restrictions, as harsh as they are, on its employees. The problem is that in many states, including Ohio, the church’s schools are now funded in part by the taxpayers through voucher schemes.
Thanks to voucher plans, taxpayers are now propping up a private, sectarian school system that saturates its curriculum with church teachings. That is bad enough. But the fact that these schools have the right to fire people at will for violating perceived “moral” offenses only makes things worse.
This is an often-overlooked problem with voucher plans: They violate basic rights. A public school teacher can’t be summarily fired for “liking” a friend’s same-sex wedding on Facebook or for sending a tweet that a principal decides he doesn’t like. A tax-funded religious school can. This is simply not right.
Teachers at sectarian schools have scant legal protections. Thanks to a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, all religious schools have to do is declare that their teachers are part of a ministry team, and they can fire them for virtually any reason. In that case, Hosana Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, an otherwise well-regarded teacher was fired from a religious school because she had a medical condition.
A public school that canned a teacher for being ill would quickly find itself in court. The religious school was allowed to hand her a pink slip and send her to the curb.
Again, as cruel as this is, it might be permissible if these schools were privately run and privately funded. But that’s not the church’s goal. Increasingly, the bishops are demanding public aid for their schools. Catholic schools have closed in many parts of the country, and rather than use their own considerable resources to buttress those institutions, the church leadership is demanding a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Some church officials act as if it’s their legal right to tap the public purse, even as they boast that their schools serve a private, sectarian purpose.
“We’ve always regarded our schools as a ministry,” Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Archdiocese, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “That’s why we open the doors in the morning. Not all of our students are Catholic and not all of our teachers are Catholic, but all of our schools are Catholic. And we found out from listening sessions around the Archdiocese two years ago – when we developed our Vision for Catholic Schools – that Catholic identity is very important to our Catholic school families.”
If the schools are a ministry, and if Catholic identity is so vital to them, they should be funded by the people who believe in that ministry, not the taxpayer. If they are something else – quasi-public institutions that believe they have a right to raid the public treasury – then they should be subjected to every rule and regulation the public schools must follow, including employment protection for the men and women who work in them.
P.S. There’s good news from Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher plan has just collapsed. A proposal to pave the way for vouchers in Alaska by altering the state constitution is also in trouble. In addition, New Hampshire’s Supreme Court is examining the legality of that state’s tax-credit plan.