A Catholic school’s students and alumni have voiced their objections to the school’s decision to not renew a gay teacher’s contract because of his same-gender marriage, a decision backed by the local archbishop.
Even within the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic, students and alumni from Archbishop Alter High School, Kettering, Ohio, have continued to find ways to demonstrate their support for James Zimmerman, an English teacher whose contract was not renewed after information about his same-gender marriage was presented to the local archbishop.
Students rallied last week at a drive-in protest at the school, singing their teacher’s favorite songs and sharing testimony of the influence he has had on their lives, reported Metro Weekly. Current student Molly Goheen told Dayton Daily News: “He’s super intelligent, but he makes us think for ourselves—he gives us space to have our own opinions and voices. He’s one of the best teachers at Alter.” Molly Russ agrees:
“He teaches us very important lessons, not just about literature or English but about being a good person, how to stand up for yourself, how to think creatively…I think Mr. Zimmerman exemplifies everything it means to be a teacher and to be a disciple of God.”
Student and alumni organizers had already started a Change.org petition, which you can sign here, opposing the decision made by Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Over 32,000 signatures have been collected. Faithful America also launched a petition calling on the school to rehire Zimmerman and on the archdiocese to stop firing LGBTQ church workers. That petition, available here, has gained more than 11,000 signatures.
The Alter community organizers also established Cut the Clause, a website calling for the removal of the archdiocese’s ‘morality clause’ in teacher contracts, which organizers note is applied selectively as a discriminatory practice for LGBTQ individuals. The current contract contains a clause expressing an expectation that teachers will abstain from “cohabitation outside of marriage, sexual activity outside of wedlock and same-sex sexual activity.” Similar contracts exist at many Catholic schools, and have often been used to justify the dismissal of educators in same-gender relationships.
Schnurr defended the decision about Zimmerman in large part based on the “teacher minister” contracts signed by all teachers in the archdiocese, even while he acknowledged that the teacher was a “highly-valued and “very obviously highly-regarded and well-liked.” In a letter to the Alter High School community, the archbishop wrote, in part:
“The policies guiding schools of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati are informed by the enduring teaching of the Catholic Church – not by hate, bigotry, or homophobia, as some have alleged. . . .The inherent dignity of every human being does not mean, however, that all behavior is to be condoned. . .Behaviors that are not regrettable mistakes but are rather confirmed life choices contrary to Catholic teaching cannot be offered to young people as a witness to the faith, no matter the many other outstanding attributes a person may possess. Sometimes, personal decisions mean that an individual and an organization are simply no longer compatible – nothing more, nothing less. We hope and pray that you might prayerfully consider this.”
On their Cut the Clause website, student activists published a letter they sent to the archdiocese on May 4 calling for Zimmerman’s contract to be renewed and for the removal of the discriminatory morality clause. Their letter calls attention to the ways in which the document is used only when convenient to those in power:
“Since it was added in 2014, this clause has been used to terminate not only this longtime Alter educator and alumnus, but other responsible, respected, and otherwise qualified teachers throughout the diocese. In our view, predicating the firing of an individual on many of the reasons listed in this clause is a morally inconsistent desecration of the Catholic Church’s own guidance on social justice, love, acceptance, respect, and forgiveness.
“We would further argue it is not judicious to retain a clause that is not practically and equitably enforceable in all its facets, as it is not possible for the Archdiocese to uphold each of these standards when there are no public records or substantial proof of the actions listed therein.
“For example: Are unmarried female teachers subjected to virginity checks to ensure they are abstaining from sexual activity? Is it even possible to check unmarried male teachers for the same condition? Are faculty members required to share their medical records to prove they’ve never received an abortion or been a party to in vitro fertilization? When the Archdiocese discovers that any teacher it hires is married, does it conduct an inquiry into whether that marriage is valid in the Church?”
Primarily, Cut the Clause is calling for the archdiocese to “develop a comprehensive, transparent, and good-faith plan or inclusion initiative for welcoming LGBTQ+ educators—and all others who are ostracized by this clause—as teachers in its schools.” At least two other educators in Cincinnati, Molly Shumate and Mark Moroski, have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes.
Moroski, who worked in Catholic education for twelve years, commented on the Zimmerman dispute to WCPO 9, saying not renewing the contract was a “bad message” for students:
“I had students reach out to me after I got fired saying, ‘What does this mean for somebody like me, who is struggling with their identity and has been told tacitly and explicitly in the Church in which their parents raised them that they’re bad for having these feelings and they’re sinful?'”
Moroski, who now serves on the board of Cincinnati’s public school system, said Zimmerman was a “great teacher” and would be welcomed to teach in that system and “be whoever you want.” Zimmerman, who continues to teach his students remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, has not publicly commented on the situation. As devastating as this decision surely is, we hope that he finds strength in the unwavering support of the students he has so clearly impacted through his 23 years of teaching.
The Alter High students and alumni are right in drawing attention to the diocese’s discriminatory practice. Such actions continue to push young people away. In the archbishop’s statement following the public pushback, he called the students’ criticism of the decision to be ‘immoral and unfair,’ a phrase that is better applied to anyone who continues to support practices which selectively punish dedicated educators for living a life aligned with their truest expression of conscience, love, and fidelity.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, May 18, 2020