A teacher who was fired from his job as a Catholic high school English and art teacher after marrying his same-sex partner has settled a lawsuit against the school.
Ken Bencomo worked at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, California for more than fifteen years before he was fired. Bondings 2.0 reported his situation when he was fired in 2013. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported that Bencomo’s marriage was featured in a local news story, and he was fired from the school in subsequent days.
Bencomo began his lawsuit against the school in March of 2014, arguing that he had been wrongfully terminated, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reported. In an earlier move to have the lawsuit dismissed, St. Lucy’s argued that the termination was justified because of the Catholic affiliation of the school. In response to the request for dismissal, Judge Monica Bachner acknowledged the school’s religious affiliation and the power of the of the “ministerial exemption.” But, she ruled that the case should proceed because the grounds for a ministerial exception were not met, and because Bencomo was aware that the school was religiously based:
“. . . [I]n her ruling denying the dismissal motion, Bachner said it was ‘Beyond dispute that St. Lucy’s … is a religious organization that clearly falls within the ministerial exception’ and that the school ‘Prides itself on being a Catholic high school’ founded by a Catholic religious order. ‘Plaintiff was aware that St. Lucy’s was a religious school,’ Bachner wrote. ‘No reasonable jury can find otherwise.’”
However, Judge Bachner added that Bencomo’s job as an art and English teacher did not involve teaching of religion or discussing his faith, saying:
“(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. Furthermore, (Bencomo) never personally led prayers. In his teachings, (he) never relied on or referenced Catholicism.”
Judge Bachner also wrote that Bencomo had previously introduced his partner to staff and leadership at the school, in the years prior to the news coverage of his marriage, and so the school would have been aware of his marriage well before the publicity about it.
Bondings 2.0 had reported that Bencomo previously turned down a settlement in order to bring the case to court, after school leadership confronted him about the matter:
“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.”
It was also reported that while Bencomo had been raised Catholic, and had attended Catholic schools, he claimed he was not aware of the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage:
“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?’”
Bencomo, who married his husband shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in California, was a popular teacher at the school. Former students of the all-girls Catholic school protested outside the school in the days after his firing in 2013. A former student of Bencomo’s, Brittany Littleton, spoke out in support of her teacher saying:
“We’re going to keep going (with the protests) even if it’s three people standing out here every time because it’s not right and we don’t want them to be able to just brush it aside,” Littleton said, adding that she hoped the school would set up an anti-discrimination policy as a result of the action.”
Bencomo’s case follows six other LGBT Catholic employment disputes which had gone to court and reached a legal settlement. You can read about those by clicking here. To learn more about the history of employment disputes concerning LGBT issues in Catholic institutions, click here.
—Kaitlin Brown, New Ways Ministry, July 21, 2018