Commentary Religion

Stoking Fire: Why Are Some Teachers Being Asked to Swear Allegiance to Catholic Doctrine?

Eleanor J. Bader

As teachers across the country rejoice that the school year is over, Catholic school educators in a handful of areas are having to decide whether to sign employment contracts affirming their wholehearted belief in Catholic precepts.

As teachers across the country rejoice that the school year is over, and slowly begin to develop challenging and creative lesson plans for fall, educators in Catholic schools in Cincinnati, Ohio; Oakland, California; and throughout Hawaii are facing a different challenge: Whether to sign employment contracts affirming their wholehearted belief in Catholic precepts.

As journalist Bill Berkowitz, who covers the religious and secular right wing, noted in a recent piece, the contracts require teachers “to pledge fealty to Catholic doctrine in their actions inside and outside the workplace.”

While the exact wording of each contract varies, the bottom line, he says, is that faculty teaching in Catholic elementary, middle, and senior high schools in affected areas need to heed the party line and sign a multi-page contract indicating that they oppose abortion, contraception, extramarital sex, premarital sex, masturbation, pornography, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and homosexuality. What’s more, Berkowitz explains, this applies regardless of whether a teacher is Catholic and regardless of the subject taught.

The message, he told Rewire, is that “teachers must be careful about manifesting beliefs that conflict with the official position of the church. They’re making it clear that the Diocese is watching.”

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The question is why this is happening now.

The official reasons are laid out in Visions for Catholic Schools, a position paper written in 2012 by the Diocese of Cincinnati. In it, Diocesan officials describe parochial schools as “a primary source for religious vocations.” The statement further describes Catholic schools as “vital to our evangelizing ministry and the future of the church. … American Catholic schools need to be unabashedly proud of their proven gritty ability to transmit faith and values to their students.” So, too, its teachers.

By all accounts, Catholic traditionalists are fighting an uphill battle. Not only are most U.S. Catholics pro-choice, but they also support same-sex marriage and the use of birth control. On top of this, the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that there are now just 39,600 priests serving the 50 states, down from 58,909 in 1975. The number of students attending Catholic schools has also fallen, from 2 million 40 years ago to 1.4 million in 2013.

Conservative Oakland Bishop Michael Barber, for one, is hoping to turn this around by inspiring a new generation of schoolchildren to obey strict Catholic dogma. His method? Removing any teacher who goes against the grain—on any issue right-leaning Catholic clergy hold dear. His plan is apparently to troll the Facebook and Twitter accounts of all faculty employed by his diocese. As he told the National Catholic Register, “Contemporary means of communication such as Facebook and Twitter are public, and opposing church teachings openly on the mediums has consequences on a teacher’s ability to fulfill his or her ministry as a role model in a Catholic school.”

The momentum to crack down on dissent has been building for several years. Even before the 2014-15 contracts came to light, a handful of individuals had already been singled out and fired—actions that have served to exemplify the risks inherent in following one’s conscience. Among the dismissed was Mike Moroski, formerly the dean of student life at the Purcell Mariam High School in Cincinnati. Moroski was placed on “administrative leave” in 2013, eight days after he tweeted his support for marriage equality.

Computer technology teacher Christa Dias was also fired by the Cincinnati diocese after administrators learned that she’d used in vitro fertilization to become pregnant. Her case had a happier ending than Moroski’s: A jury awarded her $171,000 after finding that her termination violated federal pregnancy protection laws.

Dias, however, is an anomaly. In the fall of 2013, Arkansas teacher Tippi McCullough was fired from the Mt. Saint Mary Academy after the diocese learned of her marriage to a woman. Similarly, several months earlier, 19-year-veteran physical education teacher Carla Hale was let go by the Cleveland diocese after she was outed as a lesbian. More recently, in February of this year, literature teacher Shaela Evenson lost her Catholic middle school teaching job in Helena, Montana, when she became pregnant while unmarried.

Rita C. Schwartz, president of the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers—a union representing laypeople employed by Catholic schools in numerous cities around the country—scoffs at the idea that the current spate of contracts is intended to promote a more cohesive Catholic ideology or draw young adherents to the fold. “This has nothing to do with faith or morals,” she begins. “It has to do with the bottom line. The Diocese of Cincinnati lost the Dias case and their lawyers are telling them to create a contract so they don’t get sued again. It is also not a coincidence that they’re trying to push these so-called morality contracts in places where teachers are not unionized.”

But that may be changing. Schwartz reports that since the contracts were introduced, disgruntled teachers have begun to mobilize to protect their common interests. “Teachers in Cincinnati are taking the lead and organizing,” she says. “The contract issue has galvanized them to form a teacher’s union. Staff are going from school to school and have written to area pastors asking them to sign union recognition agreements or schedule a faculty vote on unionization.”

As for signing on the dotted line, Schwartz concedes that most teachers have opted to do so. “They recognize that these things have to be fought from the inside,” she said. “They understand that if they refuse to sign the contracts and resign from their jobs, they will have no power to change anything. They’re signing and then joining with others to improve their working conditions and increase their pay rates and benefits.”

And how has the diocese responded? I ask. “They clearly miscalculated,” Schwartz laughs. “They did not expect that Catholic school teachers would start organizing for a union and for the right to bargain collectively.”

Perhaps, she says, they should have studied history before promulgating the contracts. As Michael Sean Winters noted in the National Catholic Reporter:

In the first decade of the last century, Pope Pius X required an oath against modernism from all teachers in Catholic schools. Modernism was a catch-all term to cover a variety of positions held suspect. In an effort to combat it, Pius instituted a series of witch hunts, and dossiers were opened to monitor those deemed suspect. The effect of the crackdown on dissent was to stifle the intellectual life of the church for a generation.

If Schwartz has anything to do with it, this history will not be repeated. In fact, she’s hoping that the issue of “loyalty oaths” will spark a contagion and promote bold organizing drives in Catholic schools throughout the United States.

Roundups Law and Policy

Legal Wrap: More Changes to Contraception Accommodation Means More Lawsuits

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Obama administration announced another change to the religious accommodation to the birth control benefit, and predictably conservatives hate it.

Legal Wrap is a weekly round-up of key legal reproductive rights and justice news.

On Friday, the Obama administration offered yet another tweak to the accommodation process for employers objecting to complying with the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I have the basics of the rule change here, while Imani Gandy has this must-read piece on why the administration needs to stop fiddling with the rule and start defending it.

In addition to the legal challenges filed by the religious right challenging the birth control benefit in the ACA, apparently some insurance companies are trying to dodge covering contraception as well.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ferguson Police Department finally released its incident report in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9. Naturally the report is incomplete and, according to the ACLU, in violation of the law.

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The conversation surrounding the killing of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson, Missouri, needs to center on the value, or lack thereof, society places on Black lives.

We’re a long ways from justice for Michael Brown. Don’t miss Natasha Chart’s take here.

One of the police officers who was arresting journalists in Ferguson, Missouri, is the defendant in a civil rights lawsuit that accuses the officer of hog-tying and injuring a 12-year-old Black boy who was checking the mail at the end of his driveway.

This piece explains how a Supreme Court case from the 1980s may help shape the federal investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting and the Ferguson Police Department.

An Illinois school district is taking the wrong approach to Ferguson by instructing its teachers not to discuss the events in class.

According to this piece in Reason, a majority of Americans want to criminalize parents who let their children play at the park unsupervised.

Here is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking more truth on our country’s race problem, and the Court’s role in exacerbating that problem.

Leave it to conservative legal commentators to take a thoughtful interview answer and try and turn it into a “cat fight” between Justices Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

A former teacher at a Montana Catholic school who was fired for being unmarried and pregnant has sued the school for pregnancy discrimination.

A court in Colorado dismissed a lawsuit against Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, accusing the reproductive health-care provider of providing “taxpayer funding for abortions.”

Reproductive rights advocates in Louisiana filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s newly passed law requiring abortion-providing doctors to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland announced it will appeal an Iowa court decision banning telemedicine abortions in the state. Teddy Wilson explains how politics may have affected the ruling.

A Cincinnati, Ohio, clinic will stop providing abortions after deciding not to appeal a decision revoking its license.

The Roberts Court stepped back into the marriage equality fray and issued a stay to a federal court ruling striking Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriages.

Finally, some good news: California lawmakers voted to ban involuntary sterilization of inmates.

Commentary Law and Policy

The Next ‘Religious Freedom’ Debate: Using Tax Dollars to Discriminate in Adoption

Erin Matson

In what universe is any private institution providing services in a competitive marketplace entitled to public funding? Apparently a universe where children without stable homes are denied the opportunity to join a loving family because of someone else’s bigotry.

There is a fairly straightforward plot to have religious exemptions undermine the rule of law, and it goes like this: Declare that one person’s actions or identity violates the religious beliefs of another person or institution—like Hobby Lobby. Insist the government subsidize the operations of institutions practicing illegal discrimination—like Catholic schools that rake in vouchers and fire pregnant teachers. And twist and turn the courts and legislatures until civil rights and human rights laws are turned into mechanisms for restricting the rights of people who have not yet been fully accepted as equals in the first place.

This, proponents say, is religious liberty, and these claims reached absurd new heights recently when Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) introduced the so-called Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (S. 2706, H.R. 5285). This bill aims to give a fundamental right to government funding to those adoption and foster care agencies that refuse to place children with families that might violate their religious beliefs. To put it in real-talk, this bill is explicitly about denying same-sex couples and single adults opportunities to parent, but implicitly its sweeping language could as well be used against mixed-race couples, ethnic minorities, and prospective parents of disfavored religions.

The federal government and states using federal funding to provide child welfare services would be expressly prohibited from “denying a child welfare service provider’s application for funding, refusing to renew the provider’s funding, canceling the provider’s funding,” or even “declining to enter into a contract [emphasis mine] with the provider” that claims to operate on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs that just so happen to include discrimination against people on the basis of identity. Those institutions that claim to have been denied government funding because of their wish to discriminate would be granted standing to sue, and states that accept federal funding would be understood to waive sovereign immunity for any such claim. A state found in violation of not awarding a contract to a discriminating institution would be subject to a 15 percent cut in federal funding for child welfare services.

It’s presumptuous, and cruel. In what universe is any private institution providing services in a competitive marketplace entitled to public funding? Apparently a universe where children without stable homes are denied the opportunity to join a loving family because of someone else’s bigotry.

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It’s no surprise the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is crowing with delight. This is not just about “religious liberty,” it’s about money! (While the Vatican is notoriously tight-lipped about its finances, in one instructive example the executive director of Catholic Charities Inc.-Wichita Diocese told The Wichita Eagle last year that about half of its $8 million budget came from government funding, mostly federal funding.)

In 2006, Catholic Charities of the Boston Archdiocese ended its adoption program to, as the right-leaning The Washington Times put it, “avoid placing children with homosexuals.” California followed suit later that year. In 2010, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington shut down its foster care and public adoption program after the D.C. City Council passed a law requiring religious entities providing services to the general public to accommodate same-sex couples. This pattern continued in Illinois in 2011 and it’s not difficult to see where this is going, as 19 states have come to permit same-sex marriage and through lawsuits that number continues to increase steadily.

When it seems inevitable that marriage equality will someday be the law of the land, Catholic Charities appears to have two choices: stop discriminating, or get out of the adoption business. Instead, a third way has emerged. That way is passing a law that turns express discrimination into an entitlement to government largesse.

Real religious liberty acknowledges that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. False religious liberty is insisting that free exercise means the government must privilege a particular religious viewpoint at the expense of a secular public with basic civil and human rights.

It’s disturbing enough as it is, but it gets worse when considered in the context of a broader picture. Proponents of this most perverted take on religious liberty are working—and winning —a strategy to undermine access to birth control, so there will be more unwanted pregnancies. They are working—and winning—a strategy to undermine access to abortion, so there will be more unwanted children. And now they are working to undermine the availability of homes to those children, unless those homes follow the dictates of one particular religious viewpoint.

It may be that some are so naïve to believe that if you claim that sexuality is sinful, people will ignore their own deeply felt and hardwired desires to have sex.

But a more shrewd point of view reveals that ultra-conservative forces hate same-sex couplings because the religious right is, among other things, deeply afraid of a “European-style demographic winter,” as stated in a non-public strategic document obtained from the National Organization for Marriage. More recently, the media-savvy Pope Francis is urging his faithful to have more kids.

Connecting the dots between the attacks on birth control, abortion, and now adoption, perhaps the real desire is to have more babies born that can be placed into the homes of families belonging to a certain religion. And to add another notch in the belt of “religious liberty” crusaders who are completely, totally, and vehemently anti-government unless there is money to collect.