Italy’s highest court has ruled that a Catholic school discriminated against a teacher who was fired because of rumors she is lesbian. The ruling could potentially set an LGBTQ-positive precedent in the nation’s courts.
The Labor Section of the Court of Cassation, which is Italy’s highest appeals court, confirmed that Istituto Sacro Cuore (Sacred Heart College) in Trent did indeed discriminate based on sexual orientation when in 2014 it did not renew the teacher’s contract.
Alexander Schuster, the lawyer representing the unnamed teacher (who has gone by “Silvia” in previous reporting), told Il Post (via Google Translate):
“‘The Court of Cassation. . .has completely rejected the institute’s appeal and reiterated what the Court of Appeal had already established, namely that being a religious school that wants to keep faith with its mission does not justify any discrimination. It is a ruling that makes jurisprudence for the Italian law which, on these issues, was still in the nineties.'”
This ruling is the third against Sacred Heart in the case of Silvia, and each time the damages due to her and supporting civil rights groups have increased. The appeal to the Court of Cassation was based on a legal argument surrounding Italy’s concordat (political agreement) with the Holy See. The concordat has provisions related to Catholic education in Italy, which Sacred Heart claimed allowed it freedom in its decisions, including employment. But the Court’s ruling rejected such claims, writing in its decision (via Google Translate):
“Applicant party [Sacred Heart] invokes provisions, including constitutional ones, as the basis of the freedom of organization of the religious institute, but does not adequately explain how this freedom can legitimize openly discriminatory conduct such as those considered and ascertained by the Trentino judges.”
Schuster commented that the ruling sent a clear message: “A school, just for being Catholic, does not have carte blanche to discriminate against people.”
In 2014, the teacher was called into a meeting with the head of the school, who was also superior of the community of women religious which administers the school. Silvia was asked about her relationship with a woman with whom she lives. The headmistress said she had heard rumors about Silvia being a lesbian woman, and sought to clarify the teacher’s relationship in the interests of “protecting the school environment.” Under scrutiny, Silvia refused to answer any questions in that meeting and rejected a suggestion by the head that the school would “turn a blind eye if [Silvia] was willing to ‘solve the problem.’” Silvia later confirmed she was a lesbian in a committed relationship, describing the firing as “medieval” at the time.
While Sacred Heart could appeal to the European Court, Schuster believes “the matter is closed” and the focus now will be on other cases of discrimination, both against LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities. Hopefully, he is correct and Silvia’s fight for employment justice will provide LGBTQ church workers in Italy greater protection than before.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 10, 2021