Round II: The LATimes ignores Supremes, covenant too

There were quite a few logical journalistic questions to ask after my post about the teacher who was fired by a Catholic school in Glendora, Calif., after his very public same-sex marriage to his long-time partner.

Here are several of them in one reader comment:

Thin story … leaves out too many details and, perhaps, the school does not wish to harm the person’s teaching reputation — the one who just stuck them in the eye.

The Church (or this school, evidently) does NOT discriminate against homosexuals; they are accepted as are all people. However, when one decides to live a disordered life (publicly marries his partner), then this becomes a similar situation to a heterosexual who decides to “shack up” — it’s just not a good Catholic example to give impressionable young people. So, you have the good old “morals” clause.

It would seem like the teacher knew EXACTLY what he was doing. Might we expect this to be run up to the almighty (sometimes called “supreme”) court of this land as an “anti-discrimination” issue? We await with bated breath.

– James Stagg

The problem, of course, is that one of the major points made in my post was that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled — with a headline grabbing 9-0 vote, against the expressed wishes of the current Justice Department — that doctrinally defined churches and educational institutions have the right to hire and fire in ways that defend their teachings and religious traditions.

So were the journalists involved in this story simply unaware of this recent blast from the Supremes? Or, is the subtext here that the gay-rights theme in this developing story cancels out this basic religious-liberty, First Amendment reality?

Several readers mentioned another key issue: That this particular Catholic school may or may not have a doctrinal covenant that is signed by faculty, students, parents, etc.

I get that. I know that there are schools that are living in the legal past — legal in terms of state law and the desires of Rome — and don’t want to do that whole religious covenant thing. There are also plenty of Catholic educators who disagree with the teachings of their own church and do not want them enforced.

Well, then you have photos in the local newspaper and, well, you know. That’s bad. So the reality in the school hallways clashes with the reality that is the Catholic tradition. That’s hard to explain to any traditional Catholic parents and donors linked to your school. There’s a major news story in there, methinks.

But that story does not fit the template that is in operation in the coverage.

Some GetReligion readers may, in fact, have been thinking something else: That this was just a story from small local newspaper that didn’t really cut the mustard. Things would be different if it was covered by a major newsroom, one that would certainly include the crucial missing pieces of this news puzzle (as in the covenant issue and the U.S. Supreme Court decision).

So how about The Los Angeles Times?

As it turns out, the stories are almost identical, paragraph by paragraph, point by point. This can only mean that (a) the stories are being driven by the same source, as in the legal team for teacher Ken Bencomo, and activists supporting his cause and (b) that the Catholic leaders at the diocese or St. Lucy’s Priory High School do not, for some reason, want to make a strong public case for their actions.

Might that reason be that they expect to be carved up by the local press? Could be.

Read the whole Times report. Can you find a major difference from the earlier Sun version? Note the attributions in this crucial, totally one-sided slice of the story:

Officials at St. Lucy’s Priory had been aware of Bencomo’s sexual orientation for about 10 of the 17 years he was employed by the school, said Patrick McGarrigle, Bencomo’s attorney.

School officials specifically mentioned the wedding and the publicity it received during a meeting at which Bencomo was informed that he had been fired, McGarrigle said. Bencomo, through his attorney, declined to comment.

“Ken was one of the school’s star educators and the decision to terminate him because he lawfully married a man is just heartbreaking to him — it’s crushing,” McGarrigle said. “It shows a terrible error of judgment and complete disregard of Ken and what he has brought to the school.”

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events. …

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Then we have another quote from the printed statement from Catholic leaders.

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

So, once again, we have zero references to the key element of the school’s possible legal defense — if in fact such a doctrinal covenant exists. If it does not exist, that fact is even more relevant to the story.

And, once again, we have zero references to the recent 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision about a religious school’s right to hire and fire in defense of its doctrines.

What were the editors of The Los Angeles Times thinking? Where is the other half of this important story?

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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.

  • Julia B

    Why the focus on a covenant? Perhaps it’s in their contracts. Perhaps the contract is tied to compliance with the school handbook.

    There’s a local TV anchor who was fired for posting inappropriate matter on his FaceBook page. He’s gotten another job offer but can’t take it until a year of “non-compete” is over. It was in his contract; didn’t need to be a separate non-compete document. Probably the same with the teacher.

    • tmatt

      The the combination of a signed contract linked to handbook language would be seen by the church, and by courts, as an articulated covenant for the voluntary association.

      • Julia B

        I think “covenant” is more of a Protestant term than Catholic. It certainly isn’t a legal term – in IL – that I know of. There used to be covenants connected to RE that were all thrown out as contrary to the Constitution. The term “:covenant” is not really used much in my area for employment contracts.

        • tmatt

          The name matters little. The crucial point is the articulation of the faith group’s beliefs and the acceptance of that by the members of the voluntary association.

  • BobSF_94117

    You chastise others for not being aware of a SCOTUS decision which, in all likelihood, has nothing to do with the case of the fired teacher. Catholic schools routinely hire faculty who do not live lives consistent with Catholic teaching and let those teachers teach non-religious subjects, like English. The firing of a teacher for getting married should be as common as the firing of teacher for getting divorced or remarried, in other words, it shouldn’t happen.

    Now, I have little doubt that the RCC will soon follow the example of the intolerant Protestant and other schools which require strict adherence to the sect’s tenets and requires employees to sign contracts that allow them to be fired. They’ll also add just enough “religious teaching” to every faculty member’s duties to allow them to enforce those contracts.

    Anyone familiar with Catholic education will, of course, see these actions for what they are.

    • Richard Mounts

      BobSF_94117,

      First, and to save tmatt the time, what does what you say have to do with the JOURNALISM point?

      Second, who crapped in your Easter basket?

    • tmatt

      So journalists should assume that Catholic educators are automatically opposed to the doctrines and traditions of the Catholic church? It is wrong to even ASK if the school has adopted a covenant as requested by many bishops (since the covenant would offer legal protections for their voluntary association, as cited by US Supreme Court)?

      • BobSF_94117

        Journalists should report the news. You seem to think that this journalist was somehow obligated to bring up a recent SCOTUS decision that, in all likelihood, has nothing to do with the firing of a English teacher and coach. It’s not wrong to ASK if the school has adopted a covenant, but it’s not likely, is it? They’re rare in Catholic schools. And if they had one, why didn’t they fire the teacher long ago?

        I suppose the journalist could have asked if the school had adopted the very Protestant, very exclusionary system of requiring strict adherence to religions tenets. The journalist could have also pointed out that California forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation and on marital status. The journalist could have delved into how some religious institutions are bending all the rules — and their own traditions of openness — to avoid treating gay people as equal citizens.

        The journalist could have done a lot of things… if he/she were writing a longer piece. Something tells me you wouldn’t have liked half of the related issues I’ve mentioned getting ink either.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Hardly any of these stories look at the First Amendment issues at stake in these controversies–they almost regularly spin the story as one of lone victim vs. big bad religious institution. Never mind the anti-Christian or anti-Catholic organizations behind many of the expensive lawsuits designed to use a government entity–the courts–as attack vehicles. At what point do the courts–a government body–become butchers of the First Amendment for taking cases that in past generations would have simply been immediately (and inexpensively) thrown out of court as none of its business.

  • bullschuck

    Would the quote you included “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees” suffice for the doctrinal covenant that you mentioned? That jumps out at me. If it’s in the contract, then there should be no question about what constitutes a violation and what penalties might be applied.
    And I think the implication that a reporter is more interested in championing a teacher’s career in the face of “bigotry” than looking into pesky legal precedents or theological views of a voluntary association is quite valid.

  • dalea

    Part of the problem here is with the use of the term ‘in the Catholic tradition’ which is a bit of legalese that may be unique to California. Many RC institutions adopted this at the beginning of the endless scandals as a way of insulating them from the financial issues that came with the judgments against the various dioceses. Had this school presented itself as part of the RCC, it could have been liable for the various payouts; by being in the ‘tradition’ and not in ‘the church’ it avoided this problem.
    This may be a local issue that the reporter assumed everyone understood. And most likely, local readers are well aware of the distinction between the ‘tradition’ and the actual church. And readers elsewhere will be puzzled by the situation. If the school is only in a ‘tradition’, it can take liberties with doctrine that bring it into conformity with local law. If the school stands on doctrine in unity with the church against local law, there is a very strong possibility it will become liable for the outstanding judgments.
    This is an underlying issue in coverage of the RCC in California that requires a lot of exposition to understand. And probably by someone more skilled at law than I am. The RC hospitals here have all done the same thing.

  • UWIR

    Thin story … leaves out too many details and, perhaps, the school does not wish to harm the person’s teaching reputation — the one who just stuck them in the eye.

    The school fires him, and he’s the one sticking them in the eye?

    The Church (or this school, evidently) does NOT discriminate against homosexuals

    Bullshit. They don’t fire heterosexuals for getting married, do they?

    However, when one decides to live a disordered life (publicly marries his partner)

    Homosexuality is not “disordered”, and the claim that it is is straight-up bigotry.

    against the expressed wishes of the current Justice Department

    “express” would make more sense.

    • James Stagg

      I reserve the right (privilege) to ignore silly responses to serious statements.


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