A Catholic high school in Portland, Oregon, made history this week by instituting a policy that forbids employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.
St. Mary’s Academy adopted the policy after its earlier decision to rescind a job offer to Lauren Brown, an academic counselor, triggered a backlash. Brown was offered the job in April, and over the summer, she told a top school official that she was gay.
That's when things changed. According to documents obtained by a local news source, the school offered Brown a year of pay in exchange for her agreeing not to sue and to stay quiet about the matter. Brown turned down the offer. When current students, alumni and donors learned about the story, they were outraged.
It’s hardly unusual for a Catholic school to fire a teacher for being openly gay: Despite Pope Francis famously asking “Who am I to Judge” in response to a question about gay priests, gay marriage is still considered a sin and a violation of Catholic teachings. But St. Mary’s has never been a typical Catholic school, which perhaps explains the heated reactions from current and former students after learning of the rescinded job offer.
More than a dozen current and former students told The Huffington Post that the news sharply conflicted with their understanding of St. Mary’s, a well-loved institution that prioritizes social justice and once recruited students with the slogan “free to be me.”
As Jade Osilla, a 2005 graduate of the academy still living in Portland, put it, “St. Mary’s Academy was or is an incredibly progressive place for being a Catholic school.”
“People always seem to think that Catholic schools are about nuns and uniforms and rigidity,” she continued. “But social justice and equality were part of the soul of the high school, and I think I can say that every girl who has left that high school has kept that in mind. So when we saw this happen it sent up a lot of red flags for all of us. We were sad, angry, hurt, and betrayed.”
Osilla, like many of her friends and former classmates, learned the news of the rescinded offer in an email from the school president on Wednesday morning. “We understand that others may hold different values, and we respect the right of individuals in society to do so,” the letter, obtained by HuffPost, read. “At the same time, as a Catholic high school we are obligated to follow current Catholic teachings regarding same-sex marriage in our employment practices.”
“We ask for your prayers during this difficult time,” the letter concluded. Facebook groups for St. Mary’s alumna promptly exploded with angry comments. The letter was particularly painful for current and former students who identify as queer.
“I was like please, ‘pray for you,’ are you kidding? This is so fucked,” said Mac Reid, a 2007 graduate who now identifies as gay. “I still communicate with the staff there because they’re so passionate about making sure that these girls know their worth as human beings and what they’re capable of as young people. They typically lead by example, and this was the opposite.”
In a letter to administrators that has been widely circulated on Facebook, Claire Willet, a class of 1999 graduate who is also gay, wrote about how damaging the school’s initial decision was to queer students at the school.
“You are not supporting the young queer women of St. Mary's by denying them the chance to have a role model of their own on staff,” her letter read. “You are not supporting them by teaching them that they are welcome in the Catholic Church as long as they keep their heads down and don't make a scene. You are not supporting them by saying, 'We're happy to take your tuition money but we would never hire you.'"
Although the queer alumna and current students interviewed this week spoke of the school in glowing terms and said they always felt supported by teachers and staff, they also pointed out that St. Mary’s has never been completely immune from the mainstream Catholic teachings on homosexuality.
Back in 2007, When Angie Goffredi was a junior, she and a few friends formed a queer students' alliance with a supportive guidance counselor, but they weren’t allowed to advertise or put up posters like the other school groups. They called it “Geography Club,” after a young adult novel about a similar secret school support group, and recruited by word of mouth. “I always felt like I had to tiptoe around [the administration] to be myself, but I wasn't ever outrightly punished or anything for being out,” Goffredi wrote in an email.
Stevie Dod, a junior at St. Mary’s, said that things started to change at the Geography Club last year. Dod is a leader with what is now called the Student Alliance For Equality, though the club still cannot advertise or put posters up in the halls. “But it is not a secret like in the past,” Dod wrote in an email. “I feel comfortable telling other students about it, or talking about future meetings on social media.” Wednesday’s news came as a total shock. Dod recalled that old recruiting slogan, “Free to be me.”
“That no longer seemed accurate,” Dod wrote.
The school’s reversal came quickly. A little over 24 hours after the first email, the St. Mary’s president announced the school board’s unanimous decision to add sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity policy.
“St. Mary's is a diverse community that welcomes and includes gay and lesbian students, faculty, alumnae, parents and friends, including those that are married,” Christina Friedhoff, the president, wrote. “We are proud of our work preparing the next generation of women leaders for service and leadership. We are still deeply committed to our Catholic identity.”
According to Willamette Week, Brown has not been offered her job back because the school already gave it to someone else. But Friedhoff says the school wants to offer "reconciliation
St. Mary’s students and alumni are now busy figuring out what exactly happened. “The thing that’s irritating most of us is just why they had to make that first decision at all,” Reid said. “If it was easy enough to repeal, to do the right thing, then why did they have to do that in the first place?”
Many point the finger at the Portland Archdiocese. Since the pope asked "Who am I to judge?" a small group of Catholic leaders around the world have spoken in support of gay people generally and the importance of employment nondiscrimination policies that protect gays and lesbians in particular. The Portland archbishop is not among them. Last month, he wrote a column explaining why Pope Francis’ question does not translate to Catholic support for the “gay lifestyle” or “gay marriage.”
“If a person with same sex attractions engages in homosexual acts, these acts are intrinsically and gravely disordered, and objectively constitute grave sin,” he wrote.
While it is unclear exactly what role Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample played in the school’s decision to rescind the offer, he voiced support for the decision earlier this week when the news broke. “We expect that given certain reassurances by the federal government in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling making ‘same-sex unions’ the law of the land, our religious liberty would be protected in this case as well as any future cases of this sort,” he said.
Since the school changed its policy, a spokesperson for Sample declined HuffPost's request for an interview. “The Archdiocese is aware of the decision made by St. Mary’s Academy, and will continue our conversation with school officials,” David J. Renshaw, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Portland, wrote in an email. Asked whether the school may lose its Catholic affiliation, Renshaw declined to say. “As the statement indicates, conversations are ongoing. We all hope for the best resolution.”
The school likewise turned down HuffPost's request for an interview on the week’s tumultuous events. ”We are focusing on our internal community right now. We are engaging in dialogue with our parents, students, alumnae, and faculty and staff so that healing within our community can begin,” Friedhoff said in a statement.
Perhaps the midweek turn occurred, as some have suggested, after two top donors to the academy slammed the school’s decision to rescind the job offer.
“We are extremely disappointed in the decision by St. Mary’s Academy to terminate an offer of employment based on sexual orientation and objections to marriage equality,” wrote Mary Boyle, who graduated from St. Mary’s in 1967, and her husband, Tim Boyle, the CEO of Columbia Sportswear. “We feel strongly that the position taken by St. Mary’s, as reported in the press and reflected in communications from the school, was wrong and should be reversed.”
The Boyles did not respond to HuffPost’s request for an interview.
Regardless of the reasoning, the school now stands as an important test case. Can a Catholic institution deviate from church doctrine and remain Catholic? LGBT Catholics everywhere hope so. “This is a landmark,” said Francis DeBernardo of the New Ways Ministry, an LGBT Catholic group. “I don’t know of a single other school that has stood up in this way.”