Morals Clauses Prove Controversial For Catholic School Teachers
AUSIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Catholic schools across the country, teachers are being asked to sign new contracts that include so-called morality causes. Some of these forbid certain behaviors, like using birth control or entering into a same-sex marriage where it's legal. From member station KALW, Sandhya Dirks reports on one such contract in Oakland, California, and how some parents are responding to it.
SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Maggie Cooke sends her twins, Riley and Julie, to Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. They're both juniors. Cooke first heard about the morals clause when her kids made a casual comment just a few weeks before the end of the school year.
MAGGIE COOKE: One of them just mentioned from the backseat that there was a new contract that the teachers were asked to sign and that a lot of them are not very happy about it.
DIRKS: That night, Cooke went online to read the new contract. And what she learned is that by signing on the dotted line, teachers were to follow Catholic doctrine in the classroom, but some new language worried her.
M. COOKE: And when I saw that it said, both in the professional life - their teaching - and in their personal life - and I said, wait a second...
DIRKS: Eighteen percent of the teachers in the Oakland Diocese aren't Catholic and around 50 percent of the students aren't either. That's one of the reasons the Oakland Diocese changed the contract, according to spokesman Mike Brown.
MIKE BROWN: So as that demographic changes, does the culture of the school change in any way? Are they as Catholic as this - as they were founded to be 150 or 200 years ago.
DIRKS: Brown says, the new contract merely reinforces centuries-old Catholic doctrine, including the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
DIRKS: The Catholic Church is not against gays. It can't support marriage between two same-sex people.
DIRKS: Brown says, teachers at Catholic schools should be good representatives of the faith. But according to University of California Berkeley law professor Melissa Murray, there's a legal strategy behind these morals clauses.
MELISSA MURRAY: The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted from the text of the First Amendment what is known as a ministerial exception.
DIRKS: Murray says, the ministerial exception holds that if you are hired as a minister, then you can be fired for religious reasons. And Murray says, contract language that elevates teachers to the role of ministers can be seen as a reaction to more and more states legalizing same-sex marriage. But being Catholic is not a license to discriminate, according to a former Oakland Diocese teacher Kathleen Purcell.
KATHLEEN PURCELL: These are contentious issues in the church. And what this contract language does is to place employees' personal lives in the middle of that fight. And that's cruel. That's just cruel.
DIRKS: Purcell is a former constitutional lawyer. She says, this isn't just about the growing divide between Catholic doctrine and changing social mores. It's also about a clash over religious freedom. Parent Maggie Cooke will be reluctantly sending her kids back to Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School for their senior year. But if they were younger...
M. COOKE: We can't honestly say to someone else who's got an eighth grader applying to school, oh, you've got to come to O'Dowd. It's just -it's fantastic. You know, it's okay now, but am worried about the path it's going to take.
DIRKS: The Cooke family goes to an Episcopal church. But Maggie Cooke wanted the diversity and moral grounding that O'Dowd promised her kids, and she feels they did get that. Just take her son, 17-year-old Riley. He says, he loves the school, but he's worried about his teachers. He knows that some of them are gay, and he says, the school's mission is precisely about inclusion.
RILEY COOKE: The contract and our charism are clashing with this contract. I just want it to be a place where - I just want to go to a school where the teachers feel safe for who they are.
DIRKS: The Oakland Bishop says, he wants that, too, and that is open to removing the language in future contracts. For the coming academic year, the morals clause remains unchanged. For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks in Oakland.