News Column

Watterson's Firing of Gay Teacher May Violate City Law

April 18, 2013

The firing of a gay physical-education teacher from a Columbus Catholic high school would be a violation of a city ordinance if a complaint were filed and investigators determined the dismissal was based on her sexual orientation.

Carla Hale of Powell, who worked at Bishop Watterson High School in Clintonville for 19 years, said she was fired in March after an anonymous parent complained that an obituary for Hale's mother listed the name of Hale's female domestic partner.

The dismissal caught attention after students and other supporters started an online petition on Monday to seek her reinstatement. The petition at change.org had gathered more than 9,000 signatures by early yesterday evening.

The Catholic Church considers gay relationships harmful and wrong, and a contract between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus and the Central Ohio Association of Catholic Educators says teachers can be terminated for immorality or serious unethical conduct.

Hale's attorney, Thomas Tootle, said her March 28 dismissal notice refers specifically to her relationship as the basis for her termination. The diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have declined to comment.

A Columbus city ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on sexual orientation. City law also states that an employer cannot have a policy that discriminates based on sexual orientation. Those who are found guilty could face up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Hale, a Methodist, has filed a grievance against the diocese based on terms of the contract. If that fails, Tootle said, they could turn to the Columbus ordinance.

Napoleon Bell, executive director of the city's Community Relations Commission, said the city law has no exemption for religious organizations.

Tootle said courts have allowed religious exemptions to such laws if the employee is in a " ministerial" position conveying the religious organization's message.

Morality-clause dismissals by Catholic schools are not unprecedented. In the Cincinnati diocese, an assistant principal was fired in February for making comments in support of gay marriage on a personal blog, and, in separate cases, two unmarried teachers in Cincinnati were fired in recent years after becoming pregnant.

Equality Ohio, which advocates for gay rights, is lobbying for a statewide anti-discrimination law, said spokesman Grant Stancliff. Seventeen Ohio cities have laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 80 of the state's top 98 employers have their own nondiscrimination policies, according to the organization.

Tootle said there also should be a federal law to protect people in situations such as Hale's. The lack of protection, he said, "forces people into the closet."

"If you are at risk of being terminated at any time and for any reason, including your orientation, would you come out, especially when you're working for the Catholic Church?" he asked.

Hale, 57, said the morality clause cited in her dismissal could easily be used to fire any number of staff members who fail to follow church rules, such as unmarried straight couples living together or being divorced or using birth control.

"If we really want to open up that door ... where do you start and finish if you're talking about immoral behavior within the Catholic Church?" Hale asked.



Source: (c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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