LGBT

Court To Catholic School: No, You Can’t Fire People Because They Are Gay

CREDIT: Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett (right) with his husband, Ed Suplee.

A Massachusetts court has ruled against a private Catholic school that denied employment to a man because he was married to a man. This warranted unlawful discrimination on the basic of sexual orientation, the court found.

Plaintiff Matthew Barrett had applied for a job at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Massachusetts, as a Food Services Director. After several interviews, he was offered the job. On his new hire form, Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact. Two days later, Fontbonne informed him that he could not have the job because his marriage was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Fontbonne defended the decision, claiming its belief about the definition of marriage had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In fact, the school includes “sexual orientation” in its own nondiscrimination statement. But Associate Justice Douglas H. Wilkins found this distinction wholly unconvincing. “It is no answer to say that Fontbonne denied Barrett employment because he was in a same-sex marriage, not because of his sexual orientation,” he wrote. “The law recognizes no such distinction.”

Massachusetts’ nondiscrimination laws do include some exemptions for religious institutions, but Fontbonne did not qualify. The exception applies to organizations that limit membership to persons of the same religion or denomination, but as Wilkins pointed out, Fontbonne has no such limitations. “It does not require its employees to be Catholic. In particular, the Food Services Director does not have to be Catholic.” Moreover, “its student body has included non-Catholics, including Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians.”

Fontbonne also claimed that hiring Barrett would have burdened its expression. This also failed to convince Wilkins, because Barrett “was not denied employment for any advocacy of same-sex marriage or gay rights; he only listed his husband as an emergency contact on his ‘new hire’ form. Nothing on that form suggested that Barrett claimed his marriage to have sacramental or other religious significance or that it was anything but a civil marriage relationship. Fontbonne presents no evidence of advocacy by Barrett.” Besides, there would be “little risk” that the school’s “involuntary compliance with civil law will be mistaken for endorsement of same-sex marriage.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Fontbonne similarly claimed that it deserved a “ministerial exception.” But Barrett would have no duties as an administrator or teacher of religious matters as Director of Food Services. Wilkins countered that “to apply the ‘ministerial’ exception here would allow all religious schools to exempt all of their employees from employment discrimination laws simply by calling their employees ministers.” It would defeat the point of having an exemption and case law that defines the limits of that exemption.

GLAD, the LGBT legal organization that represented Barrett, praised the ruling. “Religious-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” senior attorney Bennett Klein said in a statement. “When Fontbonne fired Matt from a job that has nothing to do with religion, and simply because he is married, they came down on the wrong side of the law.”

Barrett was “ecstatic,” saying simply, “What happened to me was wrong, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Damages have not yet been determined in the case.