When Barb Webb was in sixth grade, she thought so highly of her teacher that she decided she wanted to teach, too. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in Chemistry she passed up more lucrative private-sector opportunities and instead went on to earn a Master’s in Science Education from Lawrence Technological University. Her first full-time teaching position was at the all-girls Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. For the past nine years she has taught Advanced Placement and Honors Chemistry and coached various athletic teams at the all-girls’ school. This period brought Barb not just happiness in her professional life but also in her personal life: Two years ago she married her girlfriend, and she is now 14 weeks' pregnant.
But two weeks ago, during a ten-minute meeting with two school administrators, she was told she either needed to resign or be fired from a job she had wanted since she was eleven years old.
According to school administrators, Webb, a Catholic, is not a role model for students. Marian High School, of which I'm a graduate, is a parochial school, and every teacher must sign a contract that contains a very broad “morality clause” that stipulates: “Teacher agrees, in the performance of her/his services hereunder that she/he will not publicly engage in actions, or endorse actions or beliefs contrary to the teachings and standards of the Roman Catholic faith and morality.”
Marian High School, which refused to publicly comment for this article, isn’t the first school whose Catholic institutional identity conflicted with the lived realities of its teachers. Butte Central Catholic Schools in Montana was sued last month by Shaela Evenson, a partnered lesbian and a literature and physical education teacher there for nine years, who was fired in January while pregnant with their first child. In 2010, Christa Dias, also a partnered lesbian, was fired from two schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati under similar circumstances. The computer technology teacher was awarded more than $170,000 last year by an Ohio jury that ruled the archdiocese had discriminated against her.
None of these women were ministerial employees, but allegedly lost their jobs for their “out of wedlock” or “nontraditional” pregnancies—in other words, for violating one of the school's morality clauses. According to Ari Waldman, a professor of Law at New York Law School, “These so-called morality clauses are attempts to make end runs around anti-discrimination laws by employing the pretext of religious freedom. Your freedom to worship your religion gives you no more right to discriminate than you having red hair. And when it’s done in schools, it creates an environment where young people learn that is O.K. to discriminate against someone for who they are, something that has nothing to do with an employee’s ability to do her job well.” (As the Archdiocese of Cincinnati learned, though, this isn't a legally infallible approach to getting rid of an employee.)
Hundreds of Marian High School students and young alumnae have rallied around Barb Webb, including those who didn’t have her as a teacher. Many, both heterosexual and homosexual, are concerned about the impact of Webb's firing on young students who are struggling with their sexuality and who may now feel shame when they could have had a positive role model. Some are even reevaluating whether they could send their own daughters to Marian. Mary Mullen Ballard, a 1998 graduate who lives in the area, says, “I have been planning to send my two daughters there, but actions such as these truly cause me to reevaluate Marian, as well as all other parochial schools, as hate and discrimination are not traits I want instilled in my children.”
Mullen’s views are consistent with those held by young Catholics today. Over 70 percent of Catholics ages 18-30 agree or strongly agree that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, while 74 percent believe same-sex female couples can raise a child as well as a male-female couple can, according to Andrew L. Whitehead, a Clemson University professor who studied General Social Survey data.
While young Catholics are especially open, American Catholics as a whole have dramatically changed their beliefs in the past 25 years. Based on Whitehead’s analysis, in 1988 only 19.3 percent of American Catholics either agreed or strongly agreed that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry. By 2012, 56.7 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that they should have the right to do so. Across all years, Catholics are more accepting of gay marriage than the general American population.
So how can Catholics, especially the young, advocate for change in a system that seems to disregard their beliefs? Carol Ann MacGregor, an expert on organizational change in Catholic education who teaches at Loyola University–New Orleans, says, “As costs continue to increase, philanthropy is becoming a more and more important source of funding for Catholic schools, some of which are struggling to survive. For progressively minded Catholics, withholding donations could be a very effective strategy for enacting change.” Older, conservative Catholics hold more sway for now, as they can make larger donations.
This is especially true for Marian High School, which receives no money from the Archdiocese of Detroit, instead relying on tuition and donations for its operating budget. The Archdiocese, in its only statement on the issue, distanced itself from the controversy by stating that the school is “sponsored, owned and operated by the Monroe-based religious order of women, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). Oversight of Marian’s mission, along with establishment of its policies, is the responsibility of its Board of Directors, which includes representation from the IHM sisters.”
So what of the IHM Sisters? The IHM are part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represent about 80 percent of American nuns and has famously been under investigation by the Vatican for “radical feminism,” including support for homosexuality and female priests. While Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” attitude has reinvigorated many Catholics worldwide, his message is still slowly trickling down through the Vatican bureaucracy.
The IHM refused to comment on personnel decisions at Marian High School, but consider the IHM motto: “Courageous Spirit. Action for Justice.” With support from the LCWR and young Catholics, the IHM have the opportunity to advance a more catholic—rather than Catholic—education by supporting teachers like Barb Webb.
Webb says charity, social justice, and equality are all principles that have long motivated her as a teacher, telling her students: "You need to be able enter into a world where you will face discrimination as a woman, especially women entering science."
She added, "I never made it an LGBT issue."
Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, is a sociologist and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.