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Catholic schools, gay employees and the duty of loyalty

Charles Glenn
Charles Glenn

In recent months, there has been a steady stream of high-profile stories about Catholic school policies towards gay employees. In one, the front page of the New York Times relayed the controversy at a Catholic school in Washington State that fired an administrator after he married another man. In another, the front page of the Boston Globe featured a story about a Massachusetts Catholic school that cancelled its job offer to a prospective food services director when it learned that he was in a same-sex marriage.

Predictably, the tone of both accounts, and the great majority of those quoted, was sympathetic toward the victims of these decisions. While I understand this instinctive reaction, I’d like to point out the implications of limiting the freedom of non-public schools to choose whom to employ.

First, a word about my own background: For more than 20 years, I was the Massachusetts official responsible for enforcing the law against discrimination in schools. After I became a professor at Boston University in 1991, I was appointed the university’s representative on the Governor’s Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. Currently I serve on the state advisory committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. And I am not Catholic.

I am also vice president of a Geneva-based NGO that promotes educational freedom around the world. Experience with many countries has convinced me that we should be very careful about limiting the autonomy of non-public schools – and, indeed, of public schools, but that is another discussion – to preserve and express distinctive visions of the nature of a flourishing human life and how to promote it in children.

Educational freedom, both the freedom to provide education and the freedom to choose a school for one’s children, is protected as a basic human right by several international covenants, as well as by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. These freedoms are interdependent: that of parents to choose is meaningless unless there are accessible schools with different approaches to education, and that of schools (and of educators) to create such distinctive approaches is frustrated if they must serve families whose children are assigned involuntarily and thus must provide a lowest-common-denominator education that no one will object to.

If schools are not allowed to differ on the basis of different understandings of the Good Life, as faith-based schools and also many independent secular schools do, they will differ only on test scores. Parents with more resources will always find a way to get their children into those with higher scores, either through moving to affluent areas or through paying tuition. Because they offer a distinctive education, a nationwide study by Jay Greene found, private schools in every region of the country were more racially-integrated than residence-based public schools.

But schools, whether private or choice-based public schools like the charters that have been so successful in Boston, cannot maintain a clear focus on their distinctive educational mission unless free to select teachers who are whole-heartedly committed to that mission, whether it be Montessori, or Catholic, or Jewish, or a focus on the arts.  Without a team of staff who agree on their shared mission and can work together on the basis of mutual trust, such schools of choice might as well pack it in.

The issue of the right of Catholic schools, specifically, to employ only teachers who in their teaching and in their lives (to the extent these are visible to students) do not undermine Catholic principles has been litigated in many countries. The principle on which that right has been upheld is often called “the duty of loyalty”: the freedom of the individual teacher to dissent must be considered in the context of the rights of other teachers who have chosen to work in a particular kind of school, and of parents who want such a school for their children.

In American cases, the courts have generally held that teachers in faith-based schools are similar to clergy in other religious institutions, and that there is thus a “ministerial exception” to the application of anti-discrimination laws. This applies to the Washington State school: the vice-principal who was fired was in a leadership position, and had willingly signed a contract promising to abide by Church teachings in order to be an example for students.

This does not apply in the same way, it seems to me, in the Massachusetts case, since a food service job (except in an Orthodox Jewish or Islamic school!) could not reasonably be considered to involve upholding religious teachings.

Bottom line: Catholic and other faith-based schools should be applauded rather than condemned for ensuring that they and all of their staff present a message consistent with their beliefs. That is what integrity requires.

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BY Charles Glenn

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.

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