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Catholic School Officially Changes Policy After Fired Lesbian Rejects Hush Money, Goes Public

A statue outside St. Mary’s Academy is adorned with rainbow colored symbols as part of a student protest. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DON RYAN, FILE
A statue outside St. Mary’s Academy is adorned with rainbow colored symbols as part of a student protest. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DON RYAN, FILE

In what may be a historic first, a Catholic school that ended a contract with a teacher for being openly gay has reversed course, challenging Church teaching by instituting hiring polices that welcome LGBT people.

Earlier this year, 27-year-old Lauren Brown applied for a job as a counselor at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Portland, Oregon. The school eagerly agreed in May to bring her on in the fall, but backtracked after Brown told administrators this summer that she is a lesbian and might marry another woman some day. The school eventually rescinded her contract in early August, offering instead a year’s salary if she promised not to talk publicly about her termination and not to sue.

But Brown said she would not bow to pressure, and refused to keep silent.

St. Mary’s is a diverse community that welcomes and includes gay and lesbian students, faculty, alumnae, parents and friends, including those that are married.

“To sign a contract that’s going to affect the rest of my life, and my passion for advocating for LGBT youth and LGBT people — there’s no way I could sign that,” Brown told Willamette Week on Tuesday. “I could never live with myself.”

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When news of the firing became public this week, the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon backed the school’s decision, praising administrators for “upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church.” But the move sparked a heated response from current students, who organized protests at the school defending Brown and tweeting messages of support using the hashtag #FightForSMA. Alumni also spoke out, including Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, who is a “major donor” to St. Mary’s and whose wife is a graduate. Boyle issued a statement on Wednesday saying he was ”extremely disappointed” with the school’s decision to let Brown go.

“The news this week is an example of how to not prepare students,” Boyle told OregonLive. “There is no place in the workplace of today, or of the future, for discriminating against an individual based on sexual orientation.”

But on Wednesday evening, school officials abruptly switched their stance, announcing on Facebook that they had voted unanimously to alter the school’s hiring policies to allow for LGBT employees.

“Effective immediately, St. Mary’s has added sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity policy,” the statement read. “St. Mary’s is a diverse community that welcomes and includes gay and lesbian students, faculty, alumnae, parents and friends, including those that are married.”

Important announcement from St. Mary’s Academy President Christina Friedhoff and the Board of Directors:This evening…

Posted by St. Mary’s Academy on Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The policy change is highly unusual for a Catholic institution, as instances of Catholic schools firing LGBT employees for being “public” about their sexuality are increasingly common. Several LGBT Catholic workers and teachers have lost their jobs over the past few years simply for being “out” about who they are, with administrators often justifying the terminations by citing the Catholic Church’s historic opposition to homosexual acts. Catholic officials also often claim protection under the “ministerial exception” — a legal concept expanded in 2012 that allows faith-based organizations to discriminate when hiring for jobs they classify as “ministerial.”

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According to New Ways Ministry, a LGBT-affirming Catholic organization, the reversal marks the first instance of a school changing its hiring policy to be more inclusive in “more than 50 public incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their job in LGBT-related employment disputes.”

David Renshaw, communications director for the Archdiocese of Portland, spoke with ThinkProgress shortly before entering a meeting to discuss the school’s decision. He said Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample does not yet have a statement on the matter, but confirmed that “Canon law does say that the bishop does have oversight or jurisdiction” over St. Mary’s. Earlier this year, Sample published a statement saying that he was “saddened” by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

“We don’t know what the thought process was during the reversal,” Renshaw said, adding that Church officials would like enter into talks with school administrators soon.

But while the new policy is out of step with the position of the Catholic hierarchy, it is far more in line with the deeply progressive bent of American Catholicism: Over 60 percent of U.S. Catholics support marriage equality.

It remains to be seen whether St. Mary’s officials will extend another offer to Brown, or whether she would accept such an invitation if they did.

ThinkProgress contacted St. Mary’s and Brown for comment, but did not receive a reply by press time.