Church & state: Double coverage challenge in Seattle

I often ding mainstream media for lapses on religious doctrine. I also criticize them for ignorance of legalities that deal with religion. The story of Mark Zmuda, the gay administrator who was fired from a Catholic school, gives me a twofer.

The Seattle-based educator says Eastside Catholic School didn’t tell him not to marry his partner. He also accuses the Archdiocese of Seattle of pressuring the school to run him out. Says TV station King 5:

Mark Zmuda filed a complaint for damages against Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese Friday. Zmuda told reporters the school was initially supportive of his marriage, but said he believes the school changed its position under pressure from the church.

“The information we have is that there was involvement from the archdiocese. Pressure was put on the school to fire Mark,” said Richard Friedman, Zmuda’s attorney.

“I was asked by the school to break my wedding vows to keep my job. I was told I could either divorce or be fired. How could anyone ask anyone else to make that choice? I was fired,” said Zmuda.

Other media have gotten, shall we say, enthusiastic about the case. USA Today ran an AP story that reported the lawsuit even before it was filed. Huffington Post reported the same — even saying in the headline that the lawsuit had already been filed, although the story itself said only that Zmuda was planning to file.

All that strikes me as a journalistic lapse. I don’t know HuffPost’s and AP’s and USA Today’s editorial policies; but at the newspaper where I worked until late 2012, we didn’t announce lawsuits, or protests or demonstrations, until they’d been filed. Often, we found, people wouldn’t follow through after they got their publicity.

I could recite the GetReligion litany on mainstream media taking sides — quoting, for one thing, students and parents who support Zmuda but not those who support the school’s decision — but let’s not make it a threefer. With this one, we’ll look at church, then state.

A gold star for King 5 for quoting a statement from the archdiocese that it “has no authority to direct employment decisions for the school.” It would have been nice to point out what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and marriage as well.

King 5 also could have asked about the school’s website while reporting:

Zmuda said that he applied for the job, the school’s website read, “it did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sexual orientation.” He also said the employee handbook indicated the school did not discriminate.

“If I had read the school’s website and it had said, ‘We do not hire gay men or gay men who marry,’ I would have never taken the job at Eastside Catholic,” said Zmuda.

Did the website really say that? Was the statement taken down? Who would know? King 5’s curiosity seems to run out at this point. Also, is it possible that Catholic schools hire gays who are celibate and accept the moral teachings of the church? The issue is public opposition to the church’s doctrines.

Now, the legalities. None of the articles by KIRO, HuffPost or USA Today show much awareness of a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that acknowledged the right of a religious group to hire and fire.

The New York Times said the decision, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., was “surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity.” It added:

Chief Justice Roberts devoted several pages of his opinion to a history of religious freedom in Britain and the United States, concluding that an animating principle behind the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses was to prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups generally and in their selection of their leaders in particular.

“The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” he wrote, “and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

The Seattle Times on March 7 seemed at least dimly conscious of this:

One focus of attention in the legal case could be whether Zmuda’s job included providing religious teaching. Courts have held churches can discriminate when hiring people into positions advancing their religions.

At Friday’s news conference, Zmuda acknowledged that he led the school’s daily prayer once a month, but said he regarded it a routine task that any teacher at the school would do, and was not specifically providing religious instruction.

Hmmm, but a Times story on the previous day says Zmuda did much more:

Zmuda claims that his duties were unrelated to religious practices — that those duties were “no different than the job duties of a vice principal at a public school or nonreligious private school.”

But the school counters that his duties were “inextricably intertwined with the religious practice and activities of the church,” as outlined in the employee handbook he signed. They add that while at Eastside, he served as Eucharistic minister at some of Eastside Masses and liturgies, and delivered the opening prayer over the public-address system for staff and students, among other duties.

Shouldn’t an editor have tried to reconcile the second piece with the first? And Zmuda signed a covenant? What did it say? What did the handbook say about sexuality and teachers supporting church teachings or, at the very least, remaining silent about their opposition?

The March 6 piece also offers a smart appraisal of Washington State law:

Zmuda’s attorneys appear to be taking advantage of an opening created last month when the state Supreme Court ruled that religious nonprofits, like Eastside for example, can be sued for job discrimination if an employee’s work was unrelated to religion.

Before that ruling, attorneys seldom filed discrimination lawsuits against religious nonprofits in Washington state courts, where they knew there was no protection, and instead went to federal court.

Federal law, however, does not count sexual orientation as a protected class in employment discrimination.

However, the 2012 Supreme Court decision addressed that, too:

In a concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the courts should get out of the business of trying to decide who qualifies for the ministerial exception, leaving the determination to religious groups.

“The question whether an employee is a minister is itself religious in nature, and the answer will vary widely,” he wrote. “Judicial attempts to fashion a civil definition of ‘minister’ through a bright-line test or multifactor analysis risk disadvantaging those religious groups whose beliefs, practices and membership are outside of the ‘mainstream’ or unpalatable to some.”

How much would the U.S. Supreme Court ruling affect the Zmuda case? Sure wish someone could tell us. Sure wish someone would ask.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “How much would the U.S. Supreme Court ruling affect the Zmuda case?
    Sure wish someone could tell us. Sure wish someone would ask.” You and me both. But somehow or other, I think that in asking that question, it would ruin the narrative — those who have different views on homosexuality from that of the mainstream media have obsolete and outdated views and should, therefore, be sidelined, not merely from the discussion, but from society itself.

  • fredx2

    First, the attempt to show students in support of Zmuda appears to be biased. I count about 15 or so on the sidewalk. That is not very many students. Note the close in camera work, where you can’t see the actual size of the crowd. Note that they cut the film very quickly, so you don’t have time to evaluate the size of the crowd. When they do pull back, and show the whole crowd, it is left up on the screen for a second or so. Only by stopping the video was I able to count.
    Second, according to the papers filed by the School, Zmuda agreed to the handbook, which said that he would abide by Catholic teaching in his public behavior.
    Before he took the job, I am very sure that he knew what Catholic teaching was on homosexuality.
    He took the job anyway. He referred to his partner as his “roommate” in documents given to the school.
    Here we have a Catholic school trying to be nice and go out of its way to hire someone who is gay, and back him up all the way, then he decides to break his agreement to abide by Catholic teaching in a very public way – he put up his marriage pictures on Facebook.
    So the practical net result? Catholic schools will no longer hire gay people. If they do, they are asking for a lawsuit, and an attempt by the media to publicly humiliate them

  • Jen G.

    I almost sent these articles to you. As an alumni of ECHS I’ve been following this case and the coverage is incredibly biased – but also this case is complicated by many factors that only occasionally get mentioned.
    1st – ECHS was founded as a Catholic school by liberal Catholic parents and is deliberately not funded or supported by the diocese. The school has leaned towards liberal since it’s founding and I have the ‘peace and justice club’ membership to prove it.
    2nd – it is quite possibly the best private school in a very wealthy (think Microsoft suburbs) area and the demographics lean towards wealthy west-coast liberal with as many as 1/3 the student body non-Catholic. Many students and their parents go to ECHS because of the academics, not the religious formation.
    3rd – the support being shown is probably not that biased, although I think it has died down somewhat. As an alum I was on a chat other alumni set up to create a letter in support of Zmuda and it was running 80% or so for. One thing is that in Seattle, if you aren’t 100% for SSM you tend to keep your mouth shut publicly.
    4th – yes, the website did have the non-discrimination clause on it (I saw it myself back when this started). When I was there we had at least two openly non-Catholic teachers (one was Jewish, the other some kind of covenant-brand Protestant). What most coverage is missing is the distinction in Catholic theology between having a SS orientation and SS behavior and the Catholic concept of ‘scandal’. IOW, everything was fine as long as he was keeping his private life private and not doing anything to publicly repudiate the teachings of the CC.
    I called this lawsuit from the moment the story broke. It was clear to me that if he wasn’t planning on turning this into a way of forcing SSM on Catholic schools he would not have taken many steps that he did. The story was ‘broken’ by a very soft-ball friendly interview with a STUDENT journalist, gay activists helped organize walk-outs and ‘student led’ protests, and the spin on this has been pure ‘normalization 101’.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I am involved in starting an independent Catholic private school in my area, and this school will not mention sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause precisely because of issues like these. The statement does, however, conform to federal guidelines for religious non-profit 501c3 organizations. It will also require, as many Protestant schools do, an Oath of Fidelity for Catholic employees and a promise not to publically oppose or denigrate the Catholic faith for non-Catholic employees. If someone cannot abide by and indeed actively help advance the mission of a religious organization, he ought not to seek employment there. And if he does, it seems fitting if he breaks his promise that his working relationship with the organization be severed.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The claim that an administrator of a religious school is not a religious officer is groundless. The fact that it has any standing in courts at all shows how little courts respect the right of religious institutions to run as they chose. Hosana-Tabor should have changed this, but Roberts went for a unanimous ruling, and thus avoided the more clear affirmation of the rights of schools some sought.