Judge Okays Fired Gay Teacher’s Lawsuit Against Catholic School

A fired gay church worker’s lawsuit against the Catholic school where he once taught may proceed, per a judge’s ruling, but how successful it will be at trial is not clear.

Ken Bencomo and Christopher Persky

Ken Bencomo and Christopher Persky

Kenneth Bencomo, who taught at St. Lucy’s Priory High School, Glendora, California before being fired in 2013, won the ability to sue the school. The Glendora Patch reported:

“Superior Court Judge Monica Bachner rejected arguments by lawyers for St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora that there were no triable issues in the case . . .Bencomo, now 49, sued St. Lucy’s in March 2014, alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy, violation of the state Labor Code and breach of contract.”

That wrongful termination, after working there since 1998, resulted because he married his husband, Christopher Persky, in 2013, claimed Bencomo.

At issue now is whether Bencomo was legally terminated under the “ministerial exemption,” which provides religious institutions exemption from employment law when hiring or firing someone classified as a minister. Judge Bachner affirmed that, as a Catholic school, the “ministerial exception” is valid for St. Lucy’s; whether it applies to Bencomo is what will be decided in the upcoming trial. The Patch reported:

“Bencomo produced ‘substantial’ evidence through his course records that he did not teach any religious classes, but instead taught studio art, dance, English and yearbook and magazine courses.

“‘(St. Lucy’s) never required that faith or religion be used in the classes taught by (Bencomo) because he was not in the religious department,’ Bachner wrote. ‘Furthermore, (Bencomo) never personally led prayers. In his teachings, (he) never relied on or referenced Catholicism.'”

Bachner said the school’s claims are further undermined because Bencomo, who was raised Catholic, had previously introduced his husband to co-workers at St. Lucy’s. For now, though, her ruling only means that the fired teacher’s lawsuit will not be dismissed under the “ministerial exemption” law, and has enough grounds to go to trial.

The lawsuit’s record provided more details about what allegedly happened at St. Lucy’s, reported the Patch. Bencomo said the vice principal met with him about his marriage and, in the teacher’s words, “asked me if I knew what I was doing and if I knew that I was violating my contract.” Noting the couple’s posts on social media and newspaper, the vice principal allegedly asked him, “Why did it have to be so public?” Bencomo’s lawyers say he was then terminated after refusing two settlement amounts, $41,000 and $63,000, to keep the firing quiet.

Bencomo has since claimed he “had no idea” what the church’s teachings on homosexuality and abortion were, and only learned about these after being fired. He explained in a deposition:

“‘Because I grew up, you know — that the Catholic Church was a welcoming place and that God loves all his children. . .And I’m one of his children, and I don’t do anything wrong. I don’t break the law. He made me this way and why. . .would this be wrong?'”

The trial between Bencomo and St. Lucy’s is scheduled to begin June 27th.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 10, 2017

Leslie C. Griffin, a law professer and expert in religious liberty, will present on “Religious Liberty, Employment, and LGBT Issues,” at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” The symposium is scheduled for April 28–30, 2017, in Chicago.  For more information, click here.


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