In February, an 80-year-old Ohio woman died. Her obituary mentioned that she was survived by her daughter Carla Hale, as well as her daughter’s partner, Julie. And with that, Carla says, she lost her job.
Hale is a longtime teacher at Bishop Watterson High School, a Catholic school in Columbus. An anonymous parent saw that Hale had listed the name of her female partner, and expressed her strong disapproval in a letter to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Hale told the Columbus Dispatch. Soon after, she was fired.
In the past week, current and former students have rallied in support of Hale, who taught physical education at the school for 19 years, and a Change.org petition calling for her reinstatement has received over 12,700 signatures so far, almost all of them describing Hale as a mentor and role model.
One girl, Samantha Pfaff, recalls the time that she told Hale that her sister was very ill, and Hale collected money from other teachers and students to give her family a basket of gifts.
Many of the comments also accuse the school of violating Catholic teachings of tolerance, respect and compassion. A March poll by Quinnipiac University found that a majority of American Catholics — 54 percent — support gay marriage, more than Americans overall. Fifty-two percent also said that church leaders were out of step with the views of Catholics in America today.
Hale is only the latest in a string of teachers who have been fired from Catholic schools for purported violations of church doctrine. In February, an assistant principal at another Ohio Catholic school reportedly was fired over comments that he made on his blog in support of gay marriage. And in March 2012, a music teacher at a Missouri Catholic school claimed he was fired for his plans to marry his gay partner of two decades.
It is completely legal under federal law to fire someone for being gay. However 21 states and many localities have laws and ordinances that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers on the basis of sexual orientation. That includes Columbus, where Hale taught. But according to the Dispatch, the Central Ohio Association of Catholic Educators and the Columbus diocese have a contract that states that teachers can be terminated for “immorality” or “serious unethical conduct.”
Even if discrimination against homosexuality was illegal in the workplace, Hale’s firing might not be. In 2012, the Supreme Court determined that employment laws had a “ministerial exception.” Because of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, religious institutions are allowed to discriminate against employees, as long as those employees are ministers. Who qualifies as a minister, however, wasn’t precisely defined.
So the lawsuits started coming.
In April 2012, an Indiana woman sued a Catholic school for allegedly firing her for undergoing fertility treatments. She claimed that it was sex and disability discrimination, and that she wasn’t exempt from the protection since she didn’t teach religious classes, have a religious title, wasn’t ordained and wasn’t required to have religious training. And in February a San Diego woman sued the Christian college where she had worked as an administrator after she was fired for being pregnant before marriage.
Hale’s attorney told the Dispatch that they’re considering legal options. In the meantime, Hale has just been coping with the overwhelming response. “It’s amazing that they’ve come together and rallied around this situation,” she said. “I’m in awe of them.”