by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On January 4, the coalition of Catholic high school students, adult mentors and Eastside Catholic High School alumni joined Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) once again, at the offices of the Seattle Archdiocese and Archbishop Peter Sartain. And this time we didn't just show up with signs and activist chants - we came to deliver our demands that the Church stop the cycle of bigotry and hate and that they stop firing teachers and administrators based on sexual orientation.
In addition, we are asking for anyone who would like to show support for Mark Zmuda, otherwise known as Mr. Z, to wear orange (the colors of Eastside Catholic High School) and post photos of themselves wearing orange to the #KeepMrZ2013 Facebook and Tumplr pages.
Officials at Eastside Catholic High School (ECHS) in Sammamish said they informed then-Vice Principal Mark Zmuda he had to resign from his job because his same-sex marriage violated his employment contract, which requires that he follow church teachings. December 20 was his last day at the school.
'He clearly understood, as a condition of his employment, that he would abide by church teachings, and one of those teachings is they do not approve of this marriage,' Mike Patterson, a lawyer for ECHS told media.
Patterson initially told television and newspaper reporters that Zmuda resigned after being informed that he had violated his contract by marrying his husband Dana Jergens in July. Patterson said school officials didn't learn about the marriage until mid-December.
Zmuda, however, told one of his former students, Catrina Crittenden, in a recorded interview, that he did not resign.
'To set the record straight, I was terminated,' he told Crittenden, who conducted the interview while her brother Chase Crittenden, recorded the interview on video at Zmuda's request.
'When I was told, I asked why I was being terminated and they said because I violated Catholic teaching,' Zmuda said in the interview. 'I asked if it was breach of contract, they said no. I said if it had anything to do with my job performance or evaluations and they also said no.'
Zmuda's comments are in direct contrast with verbiage that appears in a statement on the Careers page of the ECHS webpage, www.eastsidecatholic.org, which states, 'Eastside Catholic School does not discriminate on the basis of an employee's or applicant's race, religion, creed, color, sex, age, national origin, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or any other status or condition protected by local, state or federal law. Discrimination or harassment on the basis of any status or condition protected by local, state or federal law is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated at Eastside Catholic School.'
In a particularly troubling statement, School President Sister Mary Tracy told KING 5, 'I suggested dissolving the marriage to save his job; I was trying to hang onto him.'
Sister Mary Tracy has said she was following the guidance of Archbishop Sartain; however, after last week's rally, Sartain has said that he had nothing to do with the firing.
At the January 4 rally in front of Sartain's office, I reiterated that we understand Zmuda will not get his job back (in fact, the school has already replaced him) but that we want to make sure this doesn't happen to another teacher - anywhere - ever again.
'We firmly believe that the decision to marry, or not marry, should never preclude any otherwise qualified individual from working at the school,' said ECHS Junior Julia Burns, who serves as one of the student leaders in our coalition. 'The Gospel compels us to demonstrate compassion and love in all our actions, and Mark Zmuda has always done just that. It is a shame then that the school, in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Seattle, has chosen to conduct itself in such a manner that contradicts the message of social justice that we as Catholics are all called to uphold.'
'Most immediately, we demand an apology, penned on behalf of the school and Archdiocese, and addressed to both Mark Zmuda and the community-at-large, in which they take full responsibility for their incredibly poor, opaque, and misleading management of this situation,' said Burns. 'We expect a transparent, and honest statement that truthfully addresses how this decision was reached, what players were involved, and their rationale for doing so, in light of Catholic social teachings.'
Corey Sinser graduated from ECHS is 2006. He represents the alumni in our coalition. Sinser says that in future matters, we demand that the Archdiocese, or any Catholic school under their purview, conducts itself accordingly - that the review of any employee judged to have broken Catholic doctrinal teaching (birth control, cohabitation, matters of sexuality, and the like) will henceforth include a holistic review of the individual's job performance, character, and embodiment of Catholic social teaching before a final decision regarding employment standing is made.
'No school, in conjunction with the Archdiocese or acting upon its own accord, will ever again make any such decision based strictly on doctrinal matters, as the draconian enforcement of a set of often-ignored dogmatic mores is no longer relevant to the 21st century Church,' he said in a statement given to the media at the rally.
Ian Edwards, also a student leader in the coalition and senior at ECHS, said, 'Looking forward, we believe this situation, as unfortunate as it is, has significant potential to effect real, lasting change as it relates to the greater dialogue regarding sexuality in the Catholic Church.'
Edwards warned Sartain, 'We will continue to write letters, lobby Church officials, and use any other means at our disposal to respectfully work toward our ultimate goal of changing the discriminatory policies regarding homosexuality in the Church. We understand the substantial resources this will require, and that it will certainly be a prolonged ordeal. The Vatican II accords took considerable time to finalize, and those are viewed as relatively mundane changes by today's standards.'
'With that being said,' he continued, 'we truly believe we are on the right side of history, and will use this specific incident to inform the discourse in the Catholic Church so that one day, a landmark decision will finally be reached.'
The coalition recognizes the peculiar legal aspects of this situation, and recommends that all angles are thoughtfully considered by Mr. Zmuda. In light of the policy of non-discrimination professed by the school, which protects employees on the basis of sexual orientation, we find the decision made by the administration to be very troubling. We question whether the forced adherence to the Catholic doctrine can legally preclude someone from entering into a state-recognized marriage. It should also be investigated whether or not the ministerial exception clause, defined in 2012 in the Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, extends so far as to an administrative position such as vice principal.
'As Mark Zmuda's duties never forced him to impart religious guidance on an instructional level, we find that his termination may not be protected under the law,' said Edwards. 'Beyond the strictly Catholic implications that this situation portends, there are a host of legal peculiarities which could inform any future incidents pertaining to the topic of sexuality at religious institutions.'
Zeena Rivera, a self-identified Queer student at Holy Names Catholic High School and editor at Be! Magazine, read the following statement at the rally:
'We would also like to take this moment to call attention to the supportive cast of students, alumni, mentors, and media outlets that have worked with us to shed light on such a grave violation of human rights. While this movement started at Eastside Catholic High School in Sammamish, it has since touched the far corners of the globe. Local student bodies have shown solidarity in the form of sit-ins, protests, and discussions on the topic of sexuality in the modern Church. Informed community members, from the Catholic tradition and otherwise, have joined with the students at rallies. Alumni, spanning several continents, have made their opinions known on the matter in vociferous fashion. We are fortunate to be working with a fantastic group of leaders from Social Outreach Seattle, all of whom have worked tirelessly to steer us in the right direction. The media recognition has been overwhelming; seemingly every major newspaper in the country has picked up the story, and our cause has been featured by a number of national and international news outlets as well. All local networks and publications have been eager and willing to give us continued recognition, while the Seattle Gay News, Seattle Lesbian, and Be! Magazine have been outspoken supporters of our cause from the very beginning.
'In conclusion, this is only the beginning. We believe too strongly in this movement to let it die down once the school year resumes. The notion that the administration chose to act on this specific transgression under their interpretation of Church doctrine, but disregard any other, more private affairs, sends a mixed message to the school community. It is ill-fitting for a school that extols the principles of Catholic social justice, which officially recognize such tenets as the rights of workers, solidarity with our neighbors, and the life and dignity of the human person, to act in such a callous fashion. We believe it the duty of every school administration to foster an environment of trust and understanding within the ranks of all students, faculty, and administrators. The decision reached at Eastside Catholic would indicate that such an environment is currently not encouraged there. This was a massive mistake made by the school and Archdiocese, and we won't stand down until we believe the criteria listed above have been effectively addressed. Thank you for your time, and remember...LOVE ALWAYS WINS!'
We know that this is not going to be won overnight. But we also know that we have traction. GetEQUAL and DignityUSA.org both joined our coalition this week. The story of what these kids have inspired was mention on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and more. In other words this is the moment when it all begins to change as long as people continue to back us in our fight to rid the Church of hate and discrimination against LGBT people.
Stephanie Merrow is one of the people inspired by the students. The catch is - Stephanie Merrow works at ECHS from time to time in their drama department.
On Monday, she went public with her engagement to another woman, her partner of five years, Jenny. She called into a radio talk news program that was discussing the controversy over the recent dismissal of Zmuda. Merrow thought she would be fired also.
'A little shaky, walked uphill,' she said of going back to Eastside.
But no one said anything to her. In fact, a few of her students hugged her and told her how happy and proud they were of her. They also wanted to see her engagement ring.
Then, Merrow reports, they got down to business and rehearsed their production of Guys and Dolls like normal.
The student leaders in our coalition from ECHS - Burns, Edwards and senior Alex Kovar - met with Sister Mary Tracy this week. According to them, Sister Mary told them she was proud of them. In fact, they believe she is actually 'on their side.'
She issued a statement through them that reads, 'I look forward to the day when no individual loses their job because they are married to a person of the same sex.'
Burns says she believes Sister Mary's hands are tied. The student leaders point to the hierarchy in the Catholic Church and believe that their administrators want it to change, but others are putting their foot down. 'I'd say the main player here would be the Archdiocese,' Burns believes.
And we do, too. But, aside from shucking off responsibility to Sister Mary, Sartain has remained silent on the issue. That is a mistake for the Archdiocese because we aren't going away. In fact, as demonstrated before in this article, the coalition is gaining momentum and support. We are not going anywhere until we change the Church.
There are some things you can do to help:
You can write a letter to Sartain and tell him how you feel about the issue. His address is: Archbishop Peter Sartain 710 9th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104 and tell him how you feel about the issue.
Join Z-Day and wear orange and post your photos to #KeepMrZ2013 Facebook and Tumblr pages.
Watch and share this Social Outreach Seattle video explaining Z-Day at http://www.youtube.com/user/SOSeaVideo LOVE IS LOVE Z Day 2014.
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