Reports that Catholic institutions exercise unfair employment biases are undeserved, some defenders have said.
Benedict Nguyen, chancellor of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, told CNA that Catholic institutions are “really just institutions that seek to live out the Catholic faith in a concrete way, whether it be in charity work, education, or some other endeavor."
“As faith-based institutions, these have the duty, according to Catholic identity and mission, to live out our deeply-held beliefs and morals in everyday functioning,” he continued.
“When an employee publicly lives or advocate things contrary to Catholic faith and morals and makes no movements to correct the situation,” he said, “the institution should have the right to determine whether their continued employment is an inconsistency with the integrity of the mission of the institution.”
Some cases of Catholic church or school employees fired for conduct violations attract negative media coverage and even prompt protests and lawsuits, especially on charged subjects.
In recent years, legal cases and media controversies have involved a Montana Catholic school teacher who become pregnant out of wedlock; a Wisconsin coach who spent the night with a girlfriend, an Ohio schoolteacher fired after becoming pregnant via in-vitro fertilization; or couples who contract a same-sex union or live in a same-sex relationship.
One of the latest cases involves a school in the Archdiocese of Miami, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School, which fired first-grade teacher Jocelyn Morffi on Feb. 8 after she contracted a same-sex marriage in the Florida Keys.
“As a teacher in a Catholic school their responsibility is partly for the spiritual growth of the children,” Archdiocese of Miami spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta told the Associated Press. “One has to understand that in any corporation, institution or organization there are policies and procedures and teachings and traditions that are adhered to. If something along the way does not continue to stay within that contract, then we have no other choice.”
Morffi objected to her firing in a social media post, saying “in their eyes I'm not the right kind of Catholic for my choice in partner,” the Associated Press reports.
The firing drew protests from some parents, about 20 of whom attended a meeting at the school for an explanation. Morffi had been an employee for close to seven years, coaching basketball and running a volunteer organization that took students to downtown Miami to distribute meals to the homeless.
The action also drew criticism from New Ways Ministry, an LGBT activist group that the U.S. bishops have said confuses the faithful on Church teaching.
“With each new firing, the injustice of these actions becomes clearer and clearer to Catholic people in the pews,” New Ways' director Francis DeBernardo told the Jesuit-run America Magazine.
DeBarnardo contended LGBT employees were being singled out as “the only group whose lives must be in full accordance with the hierarchy’s sexual ethics” and so they faced “blatant discrimination.”
“Differing enforcement of a religious policy based on the person who violates the policy has not been my experience,” Scott Browning, an attorney and partner with the law firm Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie, told CNA.
Browning said that in his experience representing a significant number of bishops and religious superiors, Catholic administrators “act in good faith” to ensure their institutions are faithful to their mission.
“They apply their moral teaching and the policies that implement those teachings uniformly,” Browning said. “They are not focused on any particular circumstance or group; they are focused on being true to their beliefs.”
New Ways Ministry, which has charged that enforcement is unfairly focused on Church employees in same-sex partnerships, is part of the Equally Blessed Coalition, whose member Dignity USA is being funded by the Arcus Foundation. The foundation’s June 2016 grant announcement said the coalition’s work to “combat the firing of LGBT staff and allies, who support marriage equality, at Catholic institutions” is part of the foundation's focus on limiting religious freedom exemptions it considers discriminatory.
Speaking generally, Nguyen said that in his experience conduct codes aren’t enforced “in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.”
“If anything, I find that most Catholic institutions go out of their way to rectify the situation in a fair way,” he said.
While Browning said he could not speak to every circumstance around the country, he commented, “what I can say is that in the many situations and cases I have been involved with, charges of discriminatory application of the policy simply don’t hold up.“
He said Catholic bishops and administrators he has worked with have tried to make sure that such situations are handled fairly.
“They do this by having a policy so people know the rules, and then they apply those rules to any violation,” he said. “I’ve seen no animus towards any particular group. I’ve seen no focus on homosexuality. To the contrary, the focus starts with the religious teachings and making sure people stay true to those teachings.”
“For instance, I’ve been charged with enforcing policies inside the civil legal system in circumstances where couples were living out of wedlock and making that fact publicly known, in circumstances where a teacher is teaching concepts that are contrary to the gospel and many other instances that don’t have anything to do with homosexuality,” he said.
“My experience is that the bishops and other administrators whom I’ve worked for are focused on applying the policies as they are written and as their faith requires.”
Browning said such policies are “clearly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” He noted that one relevant U.S. Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, was issued unanimously in 2012.
“The First Amendment allows religious people to live their faith free from being controlled by the government. This freedom of religion is at the core of the American system,” he said.
Parents who do not like these policies in their schools have secular alternatives, he noted.
Nguyen said that not allowing Catholic institutions the right to such policies would allow the state, courts and judges to “determine arbitrarily who can serve as a representative of a Catholic institution.”
“This would be a serious blow to the heart of religious liberty,” he said.
According to Nguyen, codes of conduct should be “applied fairly to all employees,” with clear expectations for employees when they accept a position.
“If the person finds that in conscience this is not possible, he or she should have the integrity to seek employment elsewhere,” he said.