After 15 Year Struggle, Fired Lesbian Church Worker Wins Legal Battle

Sandra Pavez Pavez

A lesbian church worker fired because of her sexual orientation has won her legal battle after a 15 years ago struggle.

Sandra Pavez Pavez won her court case against the nation of Chile with a favorable ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this month. In 2007, Pavez was fired after coming out as lesbian when rumors circulated she had a same-gender relationship. She had been working since 1985 as a Catholic religion teacher at at Colegio Municipal Cardenal Antonio Samoré, in the city of San Bernardo. The Los Angeles Blade reported:

“More than a decade later, the court ruled ‘the State of Chile is responsible for the violation of the rights to equality and non-discrimination, personal liberty, privacy and work, recognized in the American Convention on Human Rights, to the detriment of Sandra Pavez Pavez, for the discriminatory treatment she suffered … based on her sexual orientation.’

“At no time were the effects that this measure would have on Sandra Pavez Pavez’s personal life or on her teaching vocation taken into account,’ reads the decision. ‘The court determined that the right to work was compromised to the extent that, through the reassignment of functions, her teaching vocation was undermined and constituted a form of job demotion.’

“As part of the resolution, the court ordered comprehensive reparation measures that include a public act of recognition of international responsibility and guarantees of non-repetition.

“Chile is also required to amend its policies towards educational institutions, pay Pavez $35,000 in material and non-material damages and another $30,000 in costs and expenses.”

The lawsuit in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was brought on behalf of Pavez by El Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (Movilh), a leading LGBTQ group in Chile. Previously, the group had tried a lawsuit in the national courts, but lost in a Supreme Court ruling that rejected any claims of discrimination against Pavez. The firing was justified under a policy dating back to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet which allowed churches to regulate religion teachers in schools.

Pavez is celebrating the positive ruling now, saying she is “very happy” because “with this sentence, in no country in [the] America[s] will teachers, and in particular religion teachers, be able to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” She added that the ruling curtails claims that religious liberty allows anti-LGBTQ discrimination.” Pavez continued:

“This is a historic moment not for me, but for all discriminated people. . .It was 15 years of struggle after my country denied me the right to practice the profession I studied and loved so much. . .I regret that the discrimination I suffered at the hands of the church and the Supreme Court was accompanied by the total silence of successive governments in Chile, which never showed solidarity with my cause. I trust that the current government will turn things around and fully comply with the sentence.'”

The most recent ruling is a stern rebuke to Christian leaders in Chile who, noted Movilh’s president Rolando Jiménez, “united for the first time in [the country’s] history to appeal to the Inter-American Court to deny rights to the teacher.” Catholic officials once tried to force Pavez into conversion therapy, and though her employment dispute struggle took 15 years, she has now prevailed. Whether the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling will have repercussions in the wider region of the Americas is a lingering question. Different nations may have different laws regarding religious employment, and different nations may have different relationships between civil governments and religious schools. The U.S., with its religious exemption laws and the strong separation of church and state, would likely be immune to the ruling of this Inter-American Court. But this tremendous victory for justice is still worthy of celebration.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, May 4, 2022

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