Update: The board of St. Mary’s Academy has changed the school’s employment policies as a result of this incident. For more details, see Bondings 2.0‘s updated coverage by clicking here.
A Catholic school in Oregon withdrew a job offer to a lesbian woman after finding out about her sexual orientation and relationship with a woman. Additionally, according to documents released by the prospective educator, the school asked her to sign an agreement not to sue the institution and not to speak about the contract withdrawal.
Administrators at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls high school in downtown Portland, informed Lauren Brown they would not be honoring the contract they agreed upon in April, and they offered her a year’s compensation if she would agree not to file legal action against the school and also to remain silent about the contract’s withdrawal. Brown rejected the hush money, telling Willamette Weekly:
“To sign a contract that’s going to affect the rest of my life, and my passion for advocating for LGBT youth and LGBT people—there’s no way I could sign that. . .I could never live with myself.”
You can read the documents Brown released by clicking here.
Other details about the incident are in dispute. Brown claims that in July she informed Principal Kelli Clarke about her relationship with a woman:
“Brown says she asked Clark in that phone call what she should say in her [staff] biography, since she has a girlfriend. Brown also asked: Would she be allowed to bring her girlfriend to school events? What if she got married? She says Clark told her that was uncharted territory, but that Clark would support her.
“Brown says Clark called back July 30 with a different message: ‘It may not work out.’ . . .
“Brown met with Clark and [school president Christina] Friedhoff at St. Mary’s on Aug. 4. She says the meeting lasted more than three hours, with both women pressuring her to sign a separation agreement that offered her six months’ salary in return for a promise not to sue the school or talk about why she lost the job.”
That agreement even dictated, verbatim, what Brown could post to social media about the firing and mandated that she reply to inquiries by saying, “I learned that my intent to enter into a same-sex marriage is in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church.”
A St. Mary’s lawyer tells a different story. The school claims Brown notified them of her upcoming marriage in the fall and the school sought the separation agreement to explicitly identify her “intent to enter a same-sex marriage” as the reason. That language for social media and inquiries was requested by Brown, says the school.
In a letter to the community, Friedhoff stated that the school’s sponsoring congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, as well as the board, support the school’s decision. Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample also expressed support for the administration with his own statement, reported on in The Oregonian.
Brown said that she rejected the money so St. Mary’s students, some of whom, assuredly, would be part of the LGBT community, would “not be ashamed of who they are” and to point out that even in Portland there is discrimination.
Brown has hired an attorney and is considering her legal options, but as with many recent firings in the U.S. there is already a growing public support for her situation. Jeanna Frazzini of Basic Rights Oregon said this support is to be expected because Catholic education imbued so many with a sense of justice and inclusion:
“Some of my dearest colleagues in social justice came out of St. Mary’s. . .When folks at the school hear about what’s happening, they’ll be concerned—and they’ll want to see significant changes.”
Students, alumni, and Portlanders are uniting on Twitter around the hashtag #FightForSMA and decorated a campus statue in rainbow garb to protest the firing. More action may emerge as classes resume next week.
Back to school was always an exciting time for me, as was the end of school. This excitement has been tempered in the last few years because these times now mean an uptick in educators and church workers losing their jobs in LGBT-related disputes. Lauren Brown could have greatly contributed to St. Mary’s Academy, a self-described “diverse community,” in her position as college counselor.
Instead, students will only know Brown as the victim of administrators who are putting the letter of the church’s law over any concern for social justice. What a sad lesson to begin a new school year on.
Thankfully, Brown is teaching these young women a far more essential lesson about not comprising your identity or integrity.
For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the almost 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry