Catholic Schools Are Forcing Employees To Sign Away Their Free Speech


From the New York Times:

Part of the focus here and elsewhere appears to be online sharing of photos and personal opinions. A number of morality clauses in other dioceses express such concerns, specifying that teachers may not post anything on Facebook or Twitter that contradicts church teachings.

Archbishop Cordileone said that teachers who crossed doctrinal lines would be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis.” Asked if a teacher could post photos on Facebook of her gay son’s wedding, he said that “if someone was upset and reported it,” then “the person with the Facebook page would have to be talked to.”

So these “morality clauses” are being used to discipline, and even fire, employees who state the “wrong” opinions on their personal social media.1 There’s an ongoing problem in the US of employers using their power to chill and punish employees for their off-work speech, but I think this is the worse I’ve ever seen; not only are there thousands and thousands of employees being threatened this way, but they’re forced to sign “morality clauses” pre-emptively signing their right to free speech away.

(Couldn’t the employees just refuse to sign? Sure – as long as they can risk not having any income. In Oakland, three teachers were fired for declining to sign away their free speech rights.)

From CNN:

…last year, a dean of students at a Cincinnati Catholic high school was let go after supporting same-sex marriage on his private blog.

And a female gym teacher at a high school in the Columbus, Ohio, diocese was fired after publishing the name of her partner in an obituary column announcing her mother’s death. She sued and the diocese settled.

Could these people be any more open about their contempt for free speech and their desire to punish dissent? It’s like they think that by accepting a paycheck, their employees have signed away their entire lives.

After decades of gradual improvement, this problem has gotten worse in the last few years because of a Supreme Court decision. Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress writes:

…the Archdiocese will likely defend the firing by claiming the so-called “ministerial exception,” an older legal framework that originally allowed religious institutions to have full control over who they hire and fire for ordained clerical positions. In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the category to potentially include virtually any position a religious institution deems “ministerial” — irrespective of whether the job requires an employee to be ordained, such as a music director position.

This expansion has led to a rash of firings — and subsequent controversies — at Catholic institutions across the country, with LGBT schoolteachers and even food pantry workers being let go simply for publicizing their same-sex relationships.

The Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seems reasonable on its face – the teachers really did seem to be partly ministers. They had a different job title than teachers who were secular employees, had to take extra training in religious instruction, and led prayers as part of their job. Why shouldn’t they be considered ministers for purposes of the ministerial exception?

Well, now we know why – because some Catholic institutions hate free speech and will eagerly leap through any possible loophole the Supreme Court creates. They’ve even been renaming already-existing teaching jobs (including those held by non-Catholics) “minister teachers” in order to be able to crush the free speech of their employees.

This is the leading edge of a general movement among the right-wing, including some of their leading intellectuals, to enshrine discriminating against queers into the law.2

When employers use their power to police and punish employee’s off-work speech, what’s created is an environment in which only people who don’t need their paychecks to live can afford to speak out. But free speech shouldn’t be a luxury that only the well-off can afford.

One last point: It would be really nice to see the folks who have made a cottage industry of yelling “THE END OF FREE SPEECH!” when leftist students protest or Twitter bans someone for harassment, also expressing  concern about people being told by employers to sign a loyalty oath and agree not to say anything the employer disagrees with.

I don’t expect that they will. But it would be nice.

Some related links (including links I used above), either about “morality clauses” or just about people being fired for being gay:

  1. This Man Is Fighting Back Against A Catholic Church That Fired Him For Being Openly Gay | ThinkProgress
  2. ‘Thou shalt not’: Catholic teachers challenge morality clause –
  3. Cleveland Diocese adds detailed “morality clause” to high school teachers, too |
  4. Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco Defends Changes – The New York Times
  5. Controversy over new morality clause for Catholic teachers in Oakland | KALW
  6. Cincinnati archdiocese alters the wording of morality clause for Catholic school teachers | News | LifeSite
  7. Yes, People Can Still Be Fired For Being Gay And This Teacher Was (VIDEO)
  8. Anti-gay harassment: Missouri man cannot sue for sexual orientation discrimination.
  9. Catholic Priest Claims He Was Fired for Pro-Gay Rights Facebook Post
  10. Photographer Fired For Being Pro-Marriage Equality Donates The Non-Refundable Deposit To GLAAD – The New Civil Rights Movement
  11. Parents Outraged Over Firing of Lesbian Teacher at Waldron Mercy Academy – G Philly
  12. Wake Forest Law Review – A Unique Religious Exemption From Antidiscrimination Laws in the Case of Gays? Putting the Call for Exemptions for Those Who Discriminate Against Married or Marrying Gays in Context
  13. When it comes to free speech, the anti-gay-marriage movement is much, much worse | Alas, a Blog
  1. Although this post focuses on the free speech issues, of course it goes further than that – these same Catholic employers are also trying to control other aspects of their employee’s private lives, and in particular their employees sex lives and who their employees marry. []
  2. From the linked article: “What troubles opponents most is a passage that does not mention weddings; in fact, it does not limit what actions it would apply to. The passage would shield religious groups from being penalized for acting ‘in accordance with a sincere religious belief’ about same-sex marriage, and lists many things that could qualify as religious organizations, including schools, charities and retirement homes. Critics said that could mean denying married gay people housing, employment, social services and schooling. The Missouri law does not ban discrimination against gay or transgender people, but a handful of local ordinances do; the proposed amendment would supersede elements of those.” So much for the rights of local governments that conservatives say they believe in. []
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8 Responses to Catholic Schools Are Forcing Employees To Sign Away Their Free Speech

  1. 1
    Sebastian H says:

    This is exactly why I was saying in the Clementine Ford/Michael Nolan case that it wasn’t a good idea to advocate firing someone over outside activity and exactly why I said that morals clause type advocacy was so dangerous. Who could have predicted that in a modern world some people might have had differing ideas about what counts as moral?

  2. 2
    Lirael says:

    Here is another related link, from an organization that I volunteer with. The guy fired in that case was the food services manager at a Catholic school. Wonder if the school will claim that he was a minister food services manager.

  3. 3
    Elizabeth Janes says:

    I wonder what Pope Francis would think.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    Lirael, wow! From Lirael’s link:

    In a first-of-its-kind decision, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge has ruled that Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school, discriminated against Matthew Barrett on the basis of sexual orientation and sex when it rescinded its offer of the job of food services manager to him because he is married to another man. The court ruled that Fontbonne had clearly and directly violated the Massachusetts nondiscrimination law; was not exempt from the law; and had no constitutional defenses against its discriminatory conduct. The decision can be read here.

    The case, Barrett v. Fontbonne Academy, brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), seeks to enforce the nondiscrimination laws that are vitally important to our civil society and to push back against attempts by religiously-affiliated institutions to expand their ability to free themselves from the obligations of the nondiscrimination laws.

    That was back in December. That’s really good news. Thanks for the link.

  5. 5
    Lirael says:

    You’re welcome! I feel like I should state that GLAD recently changed its name to GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (acronym still GLAD), since that article predates the name change and the volunteers have been encouraged to let people know.

    The volunteers work the help, providing legal info and referrals to people who email, call, or write, and flagging and gathering initial details on cases that GLAD might be interested in litigating in order to pass them on to the lawyers. I think I might have talked to Matthew Barrett at some point – I remember that when the case first kicked off, the details of it sounded familiar. I don’t know if there have been cases with similar results in other states (though if there had been others in New England I’d expect to have heard about them).

  6. 6
    closetpuritan says:

    And a female gym teacher at a high school in the Columbus, Ohio, diocese was fired after publishing the name of her partner in an obituary column announcing her mother’s death. She sued and the diocese settled.

    Man, I wish I had a church to go to that would support me in the event that a loved one died… I hear they’re good at that.

  7. 7
    KellyK says:

    Anyone fired for refusing to sign such a document should get unemployment. (I don’t know if it’s egregious enough to count as constructive dismissal under current laws, but changing someone from a secular employee to a ministerial one who loses the normal employment protections is a pretty major change.)

    I also think any religious group hiring ministerial employees, with or without a morality clause, should be required to inform them that their legal protections are basically nil. Because churches & religious schools can and do fire people for needing FMLA time or disability accommodation, and those employees lose lawsuits if they’re “ministerial.” Morality clauses are so broad that it’s trivially easy to blow off any other legal protection and use a six-year-old Facebook post with a swear word, or a like on a gay couple’s wedding picture as a pretext.

  8. 8
    KellyK says:

    @closetpuritan, yeah. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.