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A litany of 'thou shalt nots': Catholic teachers challenge morality clause

By Susan Candiotti and Chris Welch, CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Sat May 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The morality clause is not new, just spelled out, superintendent says
  • The revised contract in Cincinnati also adds title "ministers" to teachers
  • Critics say clause creating unsettling atmosphere
  • Superintendent says ties with homosexual relatives don't have to be severed

(CNN) -- If you want to teach at a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, regardless of your religion, you must be willing to sign a detailed morality clause that critics say focuses on "pelvic issues."

The revised contracts forbid teachers from -- among other things -- living together or having sex outside of marriage, using in-vitro fertilization, a gay "lifestyle," or publicly supporting any of those things.

The system's 2,200 current teachers must sign the agreement to stay on the job.

"It is an embarrassment and a scandal, and will drive even more Catholics away from an institution so out of touch with its times," said Robert Hague, a high school English teacher for 50 years.

Teacher to boss: 'Have you no shame?'

He's leaving his job rather than sign because he's opposed to "the language, the intent, and the tone of this contract," he says.

The revised morality clause goes beyond more general standard language requiring teachers -- Catholic or not -- to adhere to Catholic doctrine.

First, the 2014-15 contract adds the title "ministers" to all teachers -- from geography to gym class -- a move seen as a legal maneuver to try to protect the archdiocese from discrimination lawsuits. It stems from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, in which the justices cite a "ministerial exemption" that gives religious institutions greater latitude when hiring and firing employees.

'We're all being asked to act out of fear'

But what especially rankles critics of the revised contract is the list of "thou shalt nots."

Teachers must sign a promise not to engage in or publicly support several areas of conduct including unmarried cohabitation or sex, using a surrogate mother or in-vitro fertilization, a homosexual lifestyle, and improper use of social media.

"It sounds like a litany of the un-saints," said Roger Rosen, a French and Latin teacher at the same high school where he was valedictorian.

WATCH: Teacher to Superintendent: 'Have you no shame?'

Cincinnati Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Rigg said in an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer in March that there are no new requirements in the revised contract, and it only explains, "in abundantly clear language, some of the principles of the Catholic Church."

Rosen signed the contract, even though he doesn't support it.

"I'm a coward," he told CNN. After 43 years of teaching, Rosen says he wants to keep collecting a paycheck for him and his wife. "Isn't that terrible?"

But he said the terms of the morality clause are creating an unsettling atmosphere among colleagues.

"Jesus always acted out of love. Never out of fear, and we're all being asked to act out of fear because the lawyers have taken over," Rosen added.

Molly Shumate, a first-grade teacher, is directly touched by one of the newly highlighted restrictions because she has a son who's gay. She's ending her career at her childhood school rather than agree to new language she says could restrict her from publicly supporting her son.

"In my heart, I know I need to go. I need to find another avenue because I am going to support my son," Shumate told CNN. "If in five or 10 years he finds a partner and he wants to be with that person, I'm going to be in the front row with the biggest bouquet."

She said she's since been told that she could be reprimanded, but not fired, for showing public support for a gay lifestyle.

"However, I don't think I should be reprimanded, either," Shumate added.

As spiritual head of the Cincinnati Archdiocese, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr has had to deal with controversial firings or dismissals, including a federal lawsuit last year.

Computer teacher Christa Dias, who was single, used in-vitro fertilization to become pregnant and was then fired. She sued the archdiocese for discrimination and a jury awarded her more than $170,000.

"You can't sign an agreement (that) you won't get pregnant," Brian Butler, Dias' attorney, told CNN.

Also last year, a dean of students at a Cincinnati Catholic high school was let go after supporting same-sex marriage on his private blog.

And a female gym teacher at a high school in the Columbus, Ohio, diocese was fired after publishing the name of her partner in an obituary column announcing her mother's death. She sued and the diocese settled.

Superintendent: No new expectations

There have also been lawsuits in other states, but that's not stopping many religious school systems from developing what some call a morality clause "on steroids."

Catholic schools in Cleveland, as well as in Oakland, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii, are working on integrating the clause in their teacher contracts.

Some question the inherent disparities: How would anyone know if a male teacher impregnated a unmarried woman without public disclosure versus a female teacher, whose pregnancy would be obvious?

Shumate said the contract might have the most repercussions when it comes to children who are still discovering their sexuality.

"If (teachers) show any support to a homosexual child in any way... will they be reprimanded? Will they be fired? That's the scary part," she said.

In an open letter to Superintendent Rigg, Hague questioned whether the archdiocese "seems to desire a kind of 'cleansing' of some of its own most dedicated and loyal members."

"This is a deep human issue and to dismiss it... by calling (homosexuality) a lifestyle seems to be a huge misunderstanding on the cognitive level... It's a dismissal of other human beings," Hague wrote.

Rosen, his voice shaking, echoed his frustration with the archdiocese.

"You're taking your most loyal defenders of Catholic teaching and throwing them under the bus. Have you no shame?"

Schnurr declined CNN's request for an interview. His representative told CNN the archbishop stands by Rigg's comments in the Enquirer op-ed.

In it, Rigg states the "teacher-minister" contract does not add new expectations nor does it "stipulate that relationships of love for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) relatives should be severed."

"Our culture is changing quickly in this area, and many of our school employees, including me, have family members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," the superintendent wrote.

"We cannot, nor should we, peek through the windows of our employee's homes to see whether they are living a moral lifestyle," Rigg writes, adding that the contract is not an excuse for "some type of witch hunt."

But Hague worries it will be just that, and that school principals and parish priests may "engage in surveillance or be party to tattle-tales of the sort needed to catch people in these 'thou shaltnots (sic).'"

Standing outside a classroom holding a framed prayer, Rosen is equally worried.

"How do I look at a gay student in the eye and tell him he's just as important as everybody else but I'm not allowed to support him as much as I would like? How does that make him feel?" he asked.

Critics: What would the Pope think of this?

Aside from stirring emotions, opponents of the revised contract wonder whether it calls into question the inclusive approach of Pope Francis, who last year said of gay Catholic priests, "Who am I to judge?"

"What's happening here is you are taking confessional matters and trying to make them public matters that people have to sign a document about," CNN Faith and Religion Contributor Fr. John Beck said. "And I think Pope Francis is really on another track here."

A dozen billboards asking "Would Pope Francis sign the new Catholic teacher contract?" have sprung up around Cincinnati, paid for by a group called Voice of the Faithful.

"If you have a legal contract that says you cannot publicly support something... that can be interpreted differently by different principals, by different administrations... it leaves people vulnerable to what they are signing," Beck said.

Because of the new contract, teachers at two schools have organized a union called the Southwest Ohio Catholic Educators Association. SWOCEA has now asked the archdiocese for collective bargaining rights, a doctrine endorsed by the Catholic Conference of Ohio Bishops -- including Archbishop Schnurr -- in 2010 during a legislative debate in Ohio's general assembly.

Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, suggests getting a seat at the table may be better than walking away.

"If they want to make any change in the way they're treated as employees, you can't change from the outside. You have to change from the inside," Schwartz told CNN.

Tim Garry is a Catholic, a lawyer, and his three children all went to Catholic schools. He met with Rigg in hopes of adding additional language in the contract to allay fears, but was turned down.

"They think it's perfect," Garry said.

"(The message) it sends: be intimidated and we're culling the herd," he added.

Garry said that by "featuring all these -- again, what's referred to as the pelvic issues" the document is "a contract in search of a problem."

"It's just unnecessary, and it's intimidating, too," he said.

Teacher says she knew what to do

For Shumate, rejecting the contract was the right thing to do so she could freely support her son Zachary without fear of reprimand or worse -- losing her job. But leaving her school hurts.

"It's sad," she said." And my spirit is broken."

She wishes she knew what the Pope thought of all this.

"He's the one I would want some guidance from," she said.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, has delivered a letter to Vatican representatives on behalf of nine teachers, including Shumate, who have lost or will no longer have jobs. They ask for an audience with the Pope.

"We have devoted years, some of us even decades, to serving our communities as teachers, leaders and role models," the letter said. "We have made a conscious choice to work within the Catholic Church because we strongly believe that a Catholic education prepares our young people to be responsible citizens, men and women for others. For each and every one of us, our employment was far more than just a job -- it was a reflection of our core Catholic values."

It may be unlikely that the Pope will get personally involved in the situation in Cincinnati. Yet, Vatican analyst John Allen says the pontiff's open-door policy to make everyone welcome appears at odds with the revised teacher contract.

"Those in Cincinnati that want to argue this is not where the Pope is trying to lead the Church probably have some ammunition," he said.

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