Monday, January 13, 2014

Students Are Winning the Gay-Marriage Fight at a Seattle Catholic High School

By Danny Westneat

Note: This op-ed was first published January 11, 2014 as "Students Winning as Eastside Catholic Twists Gay Marriage Logic" by the Seattle Times.

The ongoing morality play about gay marriage at an area Catholic high school keeps getting foggier. Except for one part that is becoming clear: The student protesters are winning.

Consider the jumble of values, rules and official gobbledygook the students of Eastside Catholic High School in Sammamish have exposed with their agitating in the past month:

It’s apparently OK to be gay and teach there. Unless you get married — then you are fired. With the caveat that if you agree to get divorced — then you can keep your job.

Now if you’re a lesbian who teaches part-time and announces on the radio that you’re getting married — not only do you keep your job, you get a raise!

Said the school’s board in a four-page letter and Q & A to families Thursday: “The public behaviors of our faculty and staff must at all times be consistent with the values and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

I’m not Catholic, so who am I to judge and all that. But “consistent” is about the last word I would choose for the school’s message.

“Tortured,” maybe. “Befuddling?” Or how about just: “Wrong.”

I don’t mean wrong in a technical sense. Eastside Catholic was probably well within its legal rights last month when it forced out Mark Zmuda, a vice principal and swim coach, for marrying a man.

A few years ago I covered a case in which World Vision, the church-based Federal Way relief agency, fired three employees because they confessed they didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Even though the workers were in seemingly secular jobs such as shipping, the firings were upheld in the courts. The point is religious organizations can discriminate in hiring and firing. Employees know that going in, or ought to.

I mean it’s wrong in a moral sense. That’s what those spirited students are appealing to in their protests: Not the law’s strict letter, but a sense of “passionate discernment,” as Father John Whitney of St. Joe’s in Seattle wrote in praising the students.

Whitney likened the “noisy uproar” of the students to the Apostles: “We in the broader Church should be grateful for the mess these young people bring.”

A mess it is, no matter where you stand on it. That the school fired Zmuda for getting married is one thing. But offering to keep him if he got divorced — if he renounced his love? That is some disturbing moral bargaining.

It’s asking Zmuda to retreat partly back into the closet. The church can rationalize this by arguing that in a religious sense his marriage never existed, so canceling it is not as serious as a traditional divorce. But if that’s so — if his civil marriage isn’t recognized by the church anyway — then why is it such a problem?

That was followed by the contrary news that a part-time drama teacher at the school, Stephanie Merrow, could not only keep her job but would get a raise even after she came out as a lesbian and announced her engagement to her female partner.

School officials said this works for them because she’s part-time. But on the consistent values and teaching front, it sure is confusing. It’s OK for the two women to marry, but not the two men?

Here’s what I think it means. When you tie yourself into knots like this, it usually means you know you’re wrong.

It doesn’t mean the pope is suddenly going to back gay marriage. Or even that Zmuda may get his job back. But it probably means the church, at least around here, will find its way to some morally ambiguous “accommodation” in which it continues to oppose gay marriage but sees fit to look the other way when the lives and loves of real human beings are at stake.

It looks to be heading there already.

“Though it is a painful time, their teachers and their parents should be proud of the Gospel spirit that has been planted in these young hearts,” Father Whitney wrote of the students.

Non-Catholic translation: I’ll be damned, these kids are winning.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday in the Seattle Times. He can be reached at 206-464-2086 or

Related Off-site Links:
Catholic Students Protest Firings in Seattle and Philly; What You Can Do to Help – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, December 20, 2013).
Seattle High School Administers a 'Vaccine Against Faith' – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2014).
Anti-LGBT Policies Create Vaccines Against Faith in Catholic Schools – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, January 10, 2014).

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