Disputes Erupt in Alberta over Anti-LGBT “Morality Clauses” in Church Worker Contracts

Barb Hamilton

Disputes have erupted in Alberta, Canada over church workers being forced to sign LGBT-negative “morality clauses” in contracts as a condition of employment. The situation has prompted both LGBT advocates and governments official to speak out, as well as a convening of the province’s bishops.

In Calgary, a complaint has been filed with the Alberta Human Rights Commission  by former Catholic school principal Barb Hamilton who claims she was terminated because of her sexual orientation, marital status, and religious beliefs. Hamilton said that signing “A Catholic Leader’s Covenant,” the document that contained the morality clauses, prevented her from taking action to help students, reported The Catholic Register:

“While she was principal, she filed an affidavit saying she was aware of 10 students in grades 8 and 9 at the school believed to self-identify as LGBTQ and had intentionally hurt themselves. Hamilton said this self-harm was believed to be a response to anti-LGBTQ insults or to family members who had said ‘they would go to hell if they were gay.’

“She has said she didn’t see any changes from the school board after she sought help. She wanted to go public to help others facing similar situations, saying, ‘I don’t think silence contributes constructive solutions to the problem.'”

Hamilton is now on leave, saying she had been forced to essentially resign.

Reports about her human rights complaint led Richard Svoboda, a top official with the Calgary Catholic School District, to confirm that employees in the district have contracts which require them to live “a lifestyle and deportment in harmony with Catholic teaching and principles. The Calgary Herald reported:

“[Svoboda] confirmed ‘anyone who is not living a lifestyle in alignment with the church, that piece of the contract would impact them. . .Relationships that would be acceptable are those recognized by the Catholic Church, that have to be acknowledged by a Catholic priest.”

“Svoboda then added, ‘that would not include a same-sex relationship or a common-law relationship.'”

The official denied that any employees, including teachers who are openly gay, have been fired due to their sexual orientation. He said “avenues to reconcile” were made available, including meeting with a priest, but did not expound further.

Similar clauses have made headlines in the neighboring districts of Red Deer and Edmonton.

The Regina Leader-Post reported that a teacher in Red Deer’s Catholic school system shared how he and other employees’ contracts include a “conditions of employment” clause, which states that employees are in breach of contract, “[i]f you are now, or at any time that you are in the employ of Red Deer Catholic Regional Division No. 39, involved in a same-sex relationship, or a common-law relationship outside of the traditional Catholic Church definition of marriage.” The newspaper’s report continued:

“The teacher, who does not identify as LGBTQ, said he gave an old mailing address to the district for at least nine months so they wouldn’t know he was living with his fiancée before marriage.

“Employees regularly refer to having a vasectomy as ‘Catholic knee surgery,’ to explain missed work days, he said. School administrators follow up with teachers who don’t go to church.

“‘The old ‘conditions of employment’ document could still be found on the school district’s website Monday. It was only removed on Tuesday after inquiries by Postmedia. A spokeswoman provided a copy of the new terms on Monday afternoon.

“References to common-law and same-sex relationships had been removed.

“The form now reads: “Specifically, you are expected, both in and out of school, to live a lifestyle and deportment in harmony with the Catholic Church practices and beliefs, which include, among other things, participation in the sacraments of the church and living in harmony with the principles of the gospel and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

“‘It also says if employees are ‘now or at any time … involved in behaviours, practices or a lifestyle that do not meet the conditions of this agreement, it may lead to discipline up to and including termination of your employment or contract of designation.'”

Press inquiries about when and why the aforementioned language change occurred, as well as a question about how many existing employees are bound by the old contract language were not answered by Red Deer Catholic school officials. A district spokesperson said she signed the new conditions in 2013, but the teacher mentioned above said the old conditions were in use as late as 2015.

The Edmonton Journal reported that “morality clauses” were being used in the Edmonton Catholic school district as well:

“A standard clause included in all of the district’s teacher employment contracts includes six religious conditions, including that the teacher ‘undertakes to follow, both in and out of school, a lifestyle and deportment in harmony with Catholic church practices and beliefs, which include, among other things, participation in the sacraments of the church and living in harmony with the principles of the gospel and the teachings of the Catholic church.'”

LGBTQ teachers in Edmonton said that clause is ambiguous, but that it is functionally an anti-gay “loophole” which enforces a culture of fear for employees like them who could be fired should a parent complain or an administrator be unsupportive. The contract lists the bishops as a mediating authority should it be unclear whether an employee is in breach of contract. In addition, when applying for employment with Edmonton Catholic Schools, candidates must fill out a “Faith Formation Plan” and if hired, provide a faith leader’s endorsement letter for a continuing contract. Guidelines for administrative positions, which are only open to Catholics, require signing a more advanced “morality clause.”

These conditions have made employment a hardship for several reasons, according to the teachers. The Journal’s report continued:

“The first teacher said they feel comfortable being ‘out’ at their school, but wants to hear a strong message from the school board and superintendent that teachers will not be fired or forced out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“‘The fact that I haven’t been fired yet is a good sign, but what is the line that’s going to be enough? Because, there is a clause there,’ they said. ‘When am I going to be too gay?’

“Another LGBTQ teacher said it was ‘terrifying’ to sign the contract years ago, but they grew up Catholic, they were in the closet and they needed a job. . .

“‘I think a lot of us take mental health days,’ they said. ‘It is constantly carrying around this mask. Who can you trust? Who can you not trust? Do I say something? Once you lie to one colleague, you have to lie to a few more. It does get exhausting.'”

Edmonton Catholic School’s hiring process Lori Nagy, a spokesperson with Edmonton Catholic Schools, said the contract clause was longstanding, adding officials would be “very concerned” if employees felt afraid at work. She affirmed that the district “abides by all our legal obligations” when it comes to LGBTQ employees.

Many Canadians have begun speaking out against these “morality clauses” in church worker contracts.

David Eggen, Alberta’s Minister of Education, said that he was “deeply concerned” at the prospect of school district requiring such “morality clauses” in contracts and that doing so would violate both labor and human rights laws. He commented, per the Regina Post-Leader, “To have people signing papers saying it’s not OK to be gay, that’s definitely not on.” Kate Toogood, a government spokesperson, added that the clause was “unacceptable” and the reporting teacher should express their views about discrimination to their employer.

Kristopher Wells, an expert in LGBTQ policy at MacEwan University, Edmonton, said the clauses detract from educator’s ability to do their job. He asked, according to the Calgary Herald:

“‘How can these contracts — these Catholicity clauses — be allowed to stand when they are clearly discriminatory. . .It’s hard to believe that in 2018, when same-sex marriage is legal in this country, that anyone could lose their job because of that. . .This is not a system that is directly supported by the church. It is a public education system supported by taxpayers.'”

Wells also said the clauses, which create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality negatively impact LGBTQ youth who are deprived of “out” role models and must exist in a culture of exclusion. He reported that a second human rights complaint has been filed in the province, but the complainant has chosen not to go public.

From a legal perspective, law professor Eric Adams of the University of Alberta, told the Edmonton Journal that human rights law allows discrimination only for a “bona fide occupational requirement” [the example given being an eye exam for an airline pilot] and for a “reasonable and justifiable” choice [as when a church hires and fires a minister]. Adams said the “morality clauses” proposed by Catholic schools “could not withstand scrutiny in virtually any other workplace.”

Finally, the secular Alberta Teachers’ Association released a statement opposing contract clauses which are “are discriminatory and that interfere with the teachers’ natural and human rights.” Recognizing the independence of religiously-affiliated school systems, the Association nonetheless called on Catholic officials not to discriminate.

The growing disputes led bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories to meet last Thursday to develop their response. A statement from them is expected soon.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 15, 2018

3 replies
  1. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    It seems to me the situation in Canada is much more tenuous for the Church in these employment issues impacted by “morality clauses.” The fact is that public money, by way of taxation, is used to fund Catholic education in Canada. That, it also seems to me, will collide inevitably with the non-discrimination laws in Canadian civil rights law. The choice will clearly be civil rights vs. religious freedom. It’s murkier here in the USA, because the Catholic school system is self-supported, and therefore “morality clauses,” as repugnant as they may seem to us (and many others), will much more likely stand the “test” of litigation under current US law/s. It might be a different situation in Canada, where, either civil rights win over religious freedom (thus LGBTQ individuals could maintain their employment in Catholic schools), or the public funding of Catholic schools might be ended, which would, no doubt, precipitate a financial crisis for the Catholic school system. “Watch this space,” as Rachel Maddow says…

  2. Patricia Vasilj
    Patricia Vasilj says:

    Unfortunately we found in the US that private religious schools can set there own rules for employees. Places of worship can also set such rules. It seems contradictory that religious institutions can be so prejudicial. I am saddened by this but have hope when I find other religious institutions do not show such practices. Bless them.

  3. Kris
    Kris says:

    This is moral policing to the point of paranoia.

    I don’t understand why people don’t take to the streets in protest.

    Here, in the UK, this would never be tolerated.

    I thought the degree of human control-freakery exhibited here was a feature characteristic only of literary fiction, like Orwell’s ‘1984’.


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