Are teachers at Catholic schools educators or ministers?
That’s the question facing Catholic school administrators throughout the U.S. as they set policies and contracts for the 2014-15 school year.
The debate over which role teachers fill is set against several high-profile cases of openly gay employees being fired from Catholic institutions.
"It's about churches trying to do everything they can to avoid the anti-discrimination laws, because they don't want to be held to gender equality, sexual orientation equality, racial equality or equal pay," Leslie Griffin, the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the National Catholic Reporter. "They want to do their best to get outside all of these laws," said Griffin.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in favor of a ministerial exemption that frees some religious employers from certain federal antidiscrimination and labor laws.
Steve Pehanich, senior director for advocacy and education at the California Catholic Conference, rejects the notion that classifying teachers as ministers is a ploy to avoid compliance with the laws.
"Some might say the most important aspect of a Catholic school is to pass on the faith," he told NCR. "Everybody who works at a Catholic school is in that sense a minister in one way or another because they represent the school.”
The Advocate has reported on several recent cases where openly gay employees have been fired from Catholic schools.
In Cincinnati teachers were given a contract that specifically highlighted “public support of or homosexual lifestyle” as grounds for dismissal. The superintendent of Catholic schools there said that the system regards “all of our teachers — not just religion teachers — as ministerial employees, even if they are not Catholic.”
In Hawaii teachers were asked to sign a contract stating that they can be fired for denying "the teachings or authority of the Church, or whose personal life or conduct is, based on Catholic teaching, immoral." The contract goes on to define examples of "immoral" conduct, including "homosexual activity" and "same sex unions."
It’s not just Catholic schools that are struggling with the issue.
In Virginia a “gifted” musician was fired from his church after marrying his partner.
Follow Michael O’Loughlin on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.