Gives Readers One-Sided Story on Gay Teacher's Firing from Catholic School

A gay teacher's firing from his job as a teacher at a Catholic college prepatory school was occasion for to provide one-sided coverage to the controversy.

In her 14-paragraph December 9 story, "Gay teacher fired after applying for marriage license," the Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell digital producer failed to find anyone to defend the school in question, apart from quoting a press statement from the school's president, Fr. James McCloskey.  What's more, Kim suggested to readers that Holy Ghost Prepatory School of Bensalem, Pa., was able to fire foreign language teacher Michael Griffin because the Keystone State did not have sexual orientation as a protected class in the commonwealth's nondiscrimination statutes:

Holy Ghost’s decision is currently legal under Pennsylvania state law as the state has not passed anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation. While Democrats have proposed a House bill that would include clauses protecting sexual orientation, Republican leaders have stalled the bill, arguing that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a Catholic himself, would not sign it. 

“What the school thinks they did was legal. It certainly doesn’t feel legal,” said Griffin. 

Does the First Amendment not feel legal to Mr. Griffin?

Kim failed to mention in her piece that even if Pennsylvania had a law forbidding employment discrimination against sexual orientation that a religious enterprise like a Catholic school would most likely win a court case against them on First Amendment grounds.

Indeed, in a unanimous ruling in January 2012, the Supreme Court upheld "the firing of Cheryl Perich, a Michigan teacher who had been employed by a school run by the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church." As ABC's Ariane de Vogue reported at the time (emphasis mine):

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment –”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”–bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.

Roberts gave a history lesson in his opinion, noting that “controversy between church and state over religious offices is hardly new.” He noted that the founders sought to foreclose the possibility of a national church.

“The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” Roberts said, and the “Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own. ”

“The Supreme Court made clear today that religion is special, ” said Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that defended the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in court.

“A religious school under the Constitution is not the same as a secular school. When a religious school chooses who is going to teach the faith to the next generation, it doesn’t have to look over its shoulder to see if the government is going to second-guess that choice, ” said Goodrich.

The court had harsh criticism for the government’s argument that a church should be treated no differently from a labor union or a social club when it came to the organization’s freedom to choose its leaders.

“We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers, ” Roberts wrote.

You can read that full Supreme Court ruling here.

While the 2012 case in question was over a matter of federal law, since First Amendment protections have long been applied to the states via the doctrine of incorporation, it seems pretty certain that federal courts would -- or at least should -- promptly dismiss lawsuits involving gay or lesbian teachers fired from their Catholic school teaching assignments because their sexual behaviors conflict with Catholic teaching on sexuality.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.