The decision by Portland, Oregon’s St. Mary’s Academy to positively alter its employment policies after firing a gay staff member was a landmark step. That shift was prompted by a school community which rallied quickly against injustice, and an administration open to new ways of being the church.
While Lauren Brown, the staff member in question, is “overjoyed” by this decision, and the school is apologizing for its original misstep, Archbishop Alexander Sample and the Diocese of Portland have not yet made a statement of opinion on the matter.
Brown, the lesbian counselor who was essentially fired by having her contract withdrawn by administrators before she started her job told The Willamette Weekly:
“The students, parents, and alumni of St. Mary’s Academy should be so proud today. In 24 hours, they came together to speak up for what they know is right. This success shows that together we really can move mountains. I hope other places in the U.S. and around the world will take notice and feel encouraged by what happened here in Portland. We are all agents of change when we put forth the effort.”
Brown noted that although her initial employment position has been filled, she is “open to listening” to the school’s promise of reconciliation. She affirmed that her “intuition about St. Mary’s Academy [being a safe and loving community] was true all along” and is glad that the discrimination she experienced will never happen again.
DignityUSA’s executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke echoed Brown’s laudatory statement, saying in a statement:
“That St. Mary’s Academy had the courage to look at their action in the light of their values, reverse it, and take steps to ensure that their future policies are rooted in respect and inclusion is a wonderful model.”
New Ways Ministry’s executive director Francis DeBernardo told The Huffington Post he did not know of any other school which had acted thus. You can read New Ways Ministry’s statement on St. Mary’s decision by clicking here. You can find our listing of the more than fifty church workers who have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008 by clicking here.
For its part, St. Mary’s Academy is apologizing to the school community for its actions against Brown, reported The Willamette Weekly. The statement said, in part:
“We are deeply sorry for the great pain and turmoil within the St. Mary’s community over the past few days. We recognize that this has not been an easy time and thank you for your understanding, patience, and openness with us during this unprecedented journey.”
LGBT employee protections are, however, still lacking at other Catholic schools in the area and nationwide. Brown’s case could shift this locally, suggested University of Portland visiting theologian Rene Sanchez. She told The Willamette Weekly that it is likely to happen, if not immediately:
“Eventually, there’s going be a shift toward greater acceptance and embracing all of those communities. . .This is not a year-or-two thing.”
While lacking explicit protections, some regional high schools stated that sexual orientation is irrelevant in their hiring processes. Paul Hogan, principal of Jesuit High School, told GoLocalPDX said questions about sexuality would be inappropriate there though he welcomed staff engaging in conversations with students so they can “explore their identities. . .explore all the different parts of themselves.”
Change could by stymied by the diocese, led by Archbishop Sample, which is refusing to clearly comment on St. Mary’s decision. The Huffington Post reports:
” ‘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.’ “
Speaking to ThinkProgress, Renshaw added that “Canon law does say that the bishop does have oversight or jurisdiction” over the school. In part, this means that under canon law, he can revoke the school’s canonical status. Whether or not this will happen, and how St. Mary’s will act in the future, is uncertain, but church officials should think closely about the intense and immediate backlash to Brown’s expulsion before choosing to defend discrimination again.
But what if the school’s initial exclusion of Lauren Brown was the final salvo in this larger dispute about LGBT and ally church workers. One blogger at AfterEllen certainly hopes so–primarily for the well being of LGBTQ youth:
“Maybe this long-standing battle of wills between the Catholic church and its LGBT parishioners can one day come to an end. And it’s a good thing, because this tension, this ingrained fear and inequality, is damaging to all, especially young, queer Catholics. . .
“I left the church because I felt I was less than for being a lesbian. I don’t want more kids growing up thinking their God and their Church only loves them if they keep themselves a secret. . .The difference will come from everyday Catholics, including young, queer ones, who keep standing up and keep asking questions. You are not less than, even if it sometimes feels like it.”
LGBTQ youth are victims, as are their teachers, ministers, and allies who happen to work for the church. Expanded marriage rights are wonderful, but without accompanying non-discrimination protections, LGBT church workers remain incredibly vulnerable to the wills of local church officials.
Francis DeBernardo and I often encourage Bondings 2.0’s readers to implement LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies at your Catholic institutions. I want to reiterate their importance in light of St. Mary’s Academy’s decision. Sadly, having followed church worker issues since 2012, I doubt Lauren Brown will be the last church worker to lose their job for being gay. But step by step, policy by policy, we can move our church towards a more just and inclusive version of itself.
To get started on an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy at your Catholic parish, school, hospital, or social service agency, contact New Ways Ministry at [email protected] or (301) 277-5674. You can also find more information on making this change here.
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 more than 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