Another Catholic school shocks press with ‘morality clause’

A reader sent in a story from Louisiana focusing on a Catholic-education topic that will — trust me — be in the news more and more in the years ahead.

But first, here’s some background.

One of the trends we are seeing in the era of the Obama White House, and Justice Department, is an attempt to draw a legal line between freedom of worship and freedom of religion, period. The best example, so far, is found in the Health & Human Services mandates, which allow more protection for expressions of faith linked to worship and denominational life than for expressions of faith that contact people outside the doors of explicitly religious sanctuaries.

As I wrote in a column for Scripps Howard last year:

The larger civic argument … focuses on whether government officials can decree that “freedom of worship” is more worthy of protection than “freedom of religion,” a much broader constitutional concept.

After all, the HHS mandate recognizes the conscience rights of a religious employer only if it has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” “primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets” and “primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.” In other words, “freedom of worship” protects a nun when she prays for people with AIDS, but she may not be protected by “freedom of religion” when caring for non-Catholics with AIDS in a ministry that hires non-Catholics.

In response to this new regime, I believe we will see more and more institutions linked to religious groups — especially schools — drawing up much stricter and more explicit doctrinal covenants for teachers, students and everyone else linked to these voluntary associations. Their leaders will, in other words, be asking people to sign on the bottom line to show that they are committed to faithfully living in accordance with specific doctrines or, at the very least, publicly supporting those doctrines.

So what will this look like in practice, in news coverage? It appears, in this KATC.com story, that the producers didn’t realize that their local event was part of a larger, national trend in Catholic schools. Note the shocked tone in this:

A new morality clause that is now included in Diocese of Lafayette teachers’ contracts bars teachers from engaging in homosexual activity, using birth control or being married outside the church, KATC has learned.

The new clause has led to the end of at least one teacher’s career at Our Lady of Fatima School, who is gay.

“Fatima School did not ask me to leave. It was because I could not sign my contract and be honest to its content,” teacher Jane Riviere said in a statement. “The leadership was very respectful, compassionate and understanding during this process.”

This opening raises all kinds of questions. For example, does the covenant forbid homosexual activity or all sexual activity outside of the Sacrament of Marriage? I predict the latter. Also, is this covenant, in reality, simply a variation on covenants that are increasingly being used in many Catholic schools across the nation, in part due to the Ex Corde Ecclesiae manifesto by the Blessed John Paul II?

Part of the problem is that local Catholic officials, instead of sharing the content of the covenant and showing it’s links to Catholic trends elsewhere, appear to have slammed the door in the face of journalists seeking information. That is unfortunate.

Of course, the journalists could have used a search engine and found similar covenants with a few clicks of a mouse.

Let’s read on.

It is unclear whether any other teachers have declined to sign a contract as a result of the new morality clause. The Diocese of Lafayette declined to comment on the clause, when it went into affect and why it was put in place.

“It is the policy of the Diocese that personnel issues are not discussed in a public forum,” said diocese human resources director Maureen Fontenot.

The new clause is not sitting well with everyone associated with Fatima. Parent Jaci Russo, the president of Our Lady of Fatima Advisory Council — the equivalent of a school board — said Fatima has an amazing group of educators.

“I would hate to think we would ever not renew the contract of a teacher who is an outstanding teacher because of something to do with her personal life,” Russo said.

What a great quote.

Here is the the heart of the story. The president of the school’s own advisory council believes that this is a showdown over matters in the personal lives of teachers, as opposed to the defense of Catholic traditions, doctrines and even dogmas. In response, it is good that the news channel’s team found a legal voice that realizes, at this point of the educational game in America, liberal and conservative private schools still have the right to try to defend the teachings that define their community.

Yet the term “morality clause” is used all of the way though the story, when I would bet the Vatican bank that we are dealing with a covenant based on explicit Catholic teachings — religious teachings about morality.

But although everyone may not agree with the clause, as a religious and private employer, the Diocese likely did nothing illegally when it instituted the new morality clause, said LSU Law professor William Corbett. …

Corbett said morality clauses are common at both public and private schools, and he’s not surprised that the Catholic diocese in Lafayette is now asking teachers to sign them.

“What is a little bit more surprising is the specificity of this one, that it goes into specific definitions of what it means about morality,” Corbett said.

Once again, there is the trend we are seeing. Religious institutions are being driven to be much more explicit in defining the borders of their religious communities. The principalities and powers of the state, on one level, are forcing this to happen.

Journalists, however, continue to be shocked.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    Is this a grade school or a high school? The story does not tell us. Was Ms. Rieverre a teacher who taught actual classes or the ‘art lady’ who moved room to room giving brief instructions on making things? I feel the story does not give enough context for me to understand the actual situation. There really needs to be more depth on just what the job consists of and how the work relates to the teachings of the church. Is art instruction used as a method of teaching the Catholic faith? I find myself wanting to know more about the school and its methods.

    Absent a statement from the diocese, we are left with second hand reports of what the policy is. Which is not helpful, and is probably really bad PR for the diocese.

  • FW Ken

    A quick google turned up only two diocese that have imposed “fidelity” clauses. I suppose others have them in place, so it’s not news. Santa Rosa, in any case, has backed off their fidelity clause for a period of two years.

    This story about Lafayette really was weak, but to be fair, without the diocese cooperating, I’m not sure what they could have done. It should be self-evident that a Catholic school ought to be a Catholic community in which kids get a consistent message about the Catholic Faith, whether it’s in a religion class, art class, or a science class.

    Apparently, that art teacher is a real class act (so to speak). Apparently, the diocese has also acted with class. To bad we don’t get to read about their side of things.

  • Jen L

    I taught in Lutheran schools for many years and always signed a similar statement. I don’t think our “specials” teachers, the part-time teachers who taught PE, Art, and Music signed one, but I do know that whatever we were teaching, connections to faith were made when possible. This is the purpose of Christian education, not just to have a specific class teaching religion, but to incorporate faith into the full lives of our students.

  • Rosemary

    I had to leave my job at an Evangelical high school in Perth, WA, in February because I am now living with my boyfriend. We are both 40 years old. I had been at the school for 5 years and was very happy there. I agree they have to have the ‘lifestyle’ agreement, as we cal it, but I am sad that I cannot do what I do best, in a place where I feel happy and have been successful, as well as have a happy life outside of school.

  • Julia

    It’s all about having good adult role models, regardless of what subject the teacher teaches. So far, private schools are still allowed to do that. Back in the era of really cool priests in the late 70s, my sons told me about a young groovy priest who taught them religion at their Catholic high school. Out of school, the immature young man rode a Harley and brought his girl friend to the kids’ high school parties. Needless to say, this was rather confusing to the students and my sons were part of the generation that didn’t learn much Catholic theology. The priest was duly laicized at some point after that.


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