Controversy over a Seattle-area Catholic school’s treatment of employees who contract same-sex “marriages” is being described as a chance for the school to explain Church teaching and defend the faith.
“A Catholic school does great damage by appearing inconsistent or embarrassed by the Catholic faith,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to promote Catholic identity in education.
“This is a great opportunity to stand up for the faith, or at least for the rights of a Catholic school to determine its own personnel policies.”
Eastside Catholic High School in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish has become the target of student-led protests and hostile media coverage after the departure of its former vice principal Mark Zmuda, following his “marriage” to another man in the summer of 2013.
The school attorney Mike Patterson said that the former vice principal agreed in December to resign and was not fired, according to the Associated Press. Zmuda said the school dismissed him on the grounds that he violated his commitment to Catholic teaching.
Sister Mary Tracy, the school’s president, said the Zmuda situation was “a church decision, not a school decision.” She said that if he had not resigned he would have been fired. She had suggested to Zmuda that he dissolve the marriage to save his job, KING 5 News reports.
Zmuda discussed the situation with a former student in an interview conducted at an Episcopal church and posted on YouTube. He said he valued the Catholic high school’s principles but added, “I just disagree with the way the church feels on this particular issue.”
Reilly said the school was right to ask Zmuda to leave.
“Requiring a Catholic educator to teach and model Catholic values is more than justified – it’s essential to a faithful Catholic education. And firing an employee who signs and then violates a contract is perfectly justified,” he told CNA Jan. 10.
Some students have held protests against the school’s decision inside and outside of school and at the archdiocese’s headquarters. They have gained media attention and the support of gay activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign. Seattle’s mayor-elect Ed Murray, a self-professed Catholic in a same-sex “marriage,” has also supported the students.
The school’s senior class president has launched an internet petition asking for the Church to change its teaching on same-sex “marriage.” It has garnered 30,000 signatures.
Reilly suggested it was “shameful” that so many Catholic school students “know nothing about the Church,” as shown by their belief that “a petition is going to redefine marriage.”
He said such a large protest against “basic Catholic teaching” raises “serious concerns” about the quality of the education at the school.
“Faithful Catholic parents and teachers need to explain to these students what the Church teaches and why a Catholic school cannot employ teachers who have same-sex weddings,” he said.
Shortly afterward, the school's chairman of the board – who had been involved in Zmuda's dismissal – resigned abruptly, King 5 reported.
Eastside Catholic returned to news headlines when the school’s freelance drama coach, Stephanie Merrow, made public her own decision to enter a same-sex “marriage,” citing the student protestors as motivation for the announcement.
“I’m doing this to support the kids, and what the kids are trying to do is get to the Pope and change the Church,” she told KING 5 News on Jan. 6.
Merrow told the Associated Press that she has now signed a new contract with the school that does not address Catholic teaching. She said her meeting with school principal Polly Skinner was “very warm and welcoming” and she “got a little raise.”
Sister Mary Tracy, the school president, on Jan. 7 said Merrow is “welcome” to continue working. The protesting students claim that the school president is sympathetic to their cause and said they could quote her as saying, “I look forward to the day where no individual loses their job because they married a person of the same sex.”
The Archdiocese of Seattle told CNA Jan. 9 it had no comment “at this time” on the controversy.
Reilly was critical of Merrow’s vocal opposition to Catholicism.
“No one who publicly opposes Catholic teaching or encourages dissent should be teaching at a Catholic school, whether full-time or otherwise,” he said.
Reilly said that in contemporary culture it is “increasingly dangerous” for a Catholic school to hire employees without requiring “explicit support” for its Catholic mission and policies.
“School leaders should be faithful Catholics who celebrate the school’s Catholic identity,” he said, adding that while students should not have to be Catholic, they should know that their school is “firmly Catholic” and their parents should support its policies.
“Jesus Christ had perhaps his harshest criticism for those who lead young people astray,” Reilly said. “There’s no room for scandal in a Catholic school.”
Reilly suggested that Catholic schools being “consistently faithful” to Catholic teaching and hiring only employees who “expressly guarantee” their support for the school’s mission would avoid these kinds of controversies.
“Certainly one wouldn’t expect so many students and others to be shocked when such a school upholds Catholic teaching – but there’s no question that being faithfully Catholic is increasingly counter-cultural,” he said.