San Francisco’s New Version Of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’


The Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco is attracting criticism after issuing a new handbook for Catholic high school employees instructing them to refrain from “visibly” contradicting the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, birth control, and abortion.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone unveiled the new language for the 2015–2016 faculty handbook earlier this week, announcing that all parochial school employees — including non-Catholics — will be expected to comply with church teachings. The language listed and reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to a variety of things including same-sex marriage and abortion, and compelled to school staff not to refute these positions in public.

“…administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or of no faith, are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths,” the statement read. “To that end, further, we all must refrain from public support of any cause or issue that is explicitly or implicitly contrary to that which the Catholic Church holds to be true, both those truths known from revelation and those from the natural law.”

In a pastoral letter accompanying the release, Cordileone, who also played a key role in helping drum up support for California’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage known as Proposition 8, insisted that the new language did not “target for dismissal from our schools any teachers, singly or collectively.” But he still cautioned against defying the rules, saying, “Dissenting from Catholic teaching or the natural moral law in a Catholic high school does not promote holiness, virtue and evangelization.”


The language has been criticized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, primarily for its possibly impact on LGBT people. The Human Rights Campaign said the document “amounts to an anti-LGBT purity test,” and around 100 Bay Area residents held a protest vigil outside the Roman Catholic cathedral in San Francisco on Friday to express disapproval of the rule change. In addition, former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities Brian Cahill expressed frustration with the Archdiocese’s plan to enforce the rules only if someone publicly breaks them.

“The key word here may be ‘visibly,’” Cahill wrote. “That would suggest if employees get caught breaking any of these rules, they would be fired, as teachers have been fired all across the country in Catholic high schools, but if they could just be discreet — then no harm, no foul. … Now his effort is seen for what it is — a clumsy, inept Catholic version of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Cordileone’s seemingly inconsistent policy of only holding teachers and staff accountable for what they do out in the open may be the result of a controversy that erupted last year in nearby Oakland, California. There, Bishop Michael Barber was the subject of much criticism after he injected a new “morality clause” into teacher contracts instructing them to abide by Church teaching in both their “personal and professional life.” Several teachers refused to sign the contract, prompting the bishop to issue a new morality clause this year that only asks instructors to “demonstrate a public life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Nevertheless, instances of Catholic workers losing their jobs for violating church teaching — primarily for being publicly gay — are becoming more frequent in Catholic circles. Last May, a Catholic food pantry worker in Kansas City, Missouri was let go after local church officials saw that a local newspaper article that made casual reference to her marriage to another woman. Similarly, a gay man was fired from his job as music director at a church in Inverness, Illinois when the head priest saw that he had posted about his proposal to his husband on Facebook. The former employees filed legal complaints in both instances, claiming the church community and church officials were well aware of their homosexuality long beforehand, but only terminated their position because they were public about it.

Other dioceses appear primed to follow suit. When same-sex marriage became legal in Florida last month, the Archbishop of Miami immediately released a statement implying that diocesan employees who publicly support the new marriage law could be fired, even if they only post celebrations of marriage equality to “social media sites.” He justified the warning by citing the diocesan employee handbook, which reads, “certain conduct, inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, could lead to disciplinary action, including termination, even if occurs outside the the normal working day.”


The ongoing controversy highlights the increasingly wide divide between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity on the subject of homosexuality. A 2014 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that the majority of American Catholics (58 percent) support same-sex marriage, and several pro-LGBT Catholic organizations exist.

The new San Francisco handbook, however, cautioned workers against affiliating with such groups.

“[Employees should] refrain from participation in organizations that call themselves ‘Catholic’ but support or advocate issues or causes contrary,” it read.

The Catholic Church retains the right to fire people for being gay because faith groups enjoy a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, allowing them to control who they hire and fire as long as the position in question is “ministerial.” The law does not specify what counts as a ministry position, and does not restrict it to ordained clergy.


This post has been updated to include yesterday’s protest vigil.