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Mass. Suit Aims To Clarify Religious Groups' Latitude In Hiring


And when it comes to hiring pastors and teachers, religious organizations - churches and schools - are exempt from most laws against discriminating and employment. Now a lawsuit in Massachusetts aims to clarify how much leeway those institutions have. For example, can they discriminate against people in same-sex marriages for non-religious jobs like gym teacher or cafeteria worker? NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Matthew Barrett thought he'd scored his dream job when he was hired to be the boss of a school cafeteria.

MATTHEW BARRETT: I was just so excited about it. My husband was very excited, and I was looking forward to this new adventure.

SMITH: Doing the final paperwork, Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact. But two days later, the Fontbonne Academy, a private Catholic school, called him back in.

BARRETT: And they sat me down and said: You know, you put husband. And I said, well, that's what he is; we're legally married. And she stated that the Catholic faith does not recognize same-sex marriage, and that she could not employ me at the school for that reason.

SMITH: Barrett says he was stunned, especially since the job was not in the chapel or in the classroom but the kitchen.

BARRETT: I'd be making soup. I'd be making cheeseburgers, you know, muffins in the morning. You know, but I'm not going to be make gay muffins or, you know, gay cheeseburgers or whatever. So what are they worried about?


SMITH: Religious institutions have great latitude when hiring for jobs like minister or Sunday school teacher. But Massachusetts law is more narrow than most, allowing leeway only for religious jobs. Barrett's attorney, Bennett Klein, says food service manager doesn't come close.

BENNETT KLEIN: Some religious entities are trying to alter that balance between religious liberty and nondiscrimination, and push the line more towards discriminating against people whose jobs have nothing to do with religion.

SMITH: The academy declined to comment, saying only that it, quote, "does not discriminate based on sexual orientation," but that church doctrine against same-sex marriage drives policy at Fontbonne, and other Catholic schools.

Indeed, Spanish and French teachers in Pennsylvania, an assistant principal in Washington state, and a band director in Ohio were all recently fired by religious schools who say hiring married gays or lesbians undermines their teachings.

MATT STAVER: I think it clearly, you know, makes it appear that the institution condones behavior which is directly contrary to the doctrine of the religious organization.

SMITH: Matt Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, says many employees sign contracts to abide by church teachings. And he says everyone serves as role models for students.

STAVER: If in the class, the teacher is instructing them that same-sex marriage is not consistent with the Bible, and then from there they go to the cafeteria and someone is there on the serving line talking about being married to someone of same sex, it really begins to send conflicting messages.

SMITH: But where to draw the line? What about a dishwasher who never has contact with kids? Even he, Staver says, could undermine a school's teachings just by bringing his same-sex spouse to a staff picnic, for example. Religious institutions need to decide for themselves, Staver says, which jobs matter.

STAVER: You don't want the government to determine what is going to be kosher and what's not.

SMITH: The firings in Massachusetts and elsewhere have prompted protests from students and alumni. Fontbonne graduate Christa Labouliere says the school always had some teachers known to be gay or lesbian. Employing them never sent a mixed message, she says; firing them does.

CHRISTA LABOULIERE: It's also church belief, straight from the mouth of the Savior, that it's not our role to judge and that the person without sin can cast the first stone. You know, tolerance and love are strong Catholic values, too.

SMITH: It's notable that it's gay marriage, not just that an employee is gay, that's now forcing the issue. And the irony is not lost on advocates like Sarah Warbelow, of the Human Rights Campaign, that marriage - which was supposed to offer gays and lesbians more security - is now being used against them.

SARA WARBELOW: To find yourself in a position where you're losing your job security because you're trying to protect your family, is deeply disturbing. And this is something we are going to see coming up over and over and over again.

SMITH: That's something both sides agree on. Ultimately, the question of how much leeway religious organizations have in hiring will most likely be answered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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