Rachel Wayne: Firing gay teachers is an affront to civil rights


Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 8:32 p.m.

Missouri teacher Rodney Wilson was fired in 1994 because he was gay. Ohio teacher Carla Hale was fired last month for the same reason.

All the debate about same-sex marriage might make the public believe gays and lesbians are protected from such discrimination, but only 21 states have such laws, and city ordinances do not consistently match these guidelines.

Hale taught at Bishop Watterson High in Columbus, Ohio, which has an anti-discrimination ordinance that prevents firing or punishment based on sexual orientation. However, it's a religiously affiliated school. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus and the Central Ohio Association of Catholic Educators agree that teachers may be expelled based on unethical or immoral conduct; while true for most educational organizations, in this case it has a legally protected aspect of religious freedom. But to what extent can personal freedom be protected without impeding upon religious freedom?

Let us first remember that the idea of protection for religious expression was written into the Bill of Rights to allow for religious assembly without fear of persecution. Thomas Jefferson's thinking was influenced by the colonies' tumultuous religious history, specifically America's settling by the Puritans, who were frequently expelled or otherwise punished for dissent in the highly politicized Anglican Church of England, and their subsequent banning of Quakers, another dissenting faction of the Church of England.

Considering how politicized religious organizations and religious political organizations had caused problems and, in some cases, violence and executions, Jefferson discussed the notion of separation in several writings; this idea became legal precedent in 1947's Everson v. Board of Education. In general, the protection of religious freedom has dovetailed with attempts to reduce oppression of religious groups, not allow oppression by them.

Singer Anita Bryant, leading a group of conservative Christians in a campaign against Dade County's anti-discrimination ordinance in 1977, was to gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk a symbol of religion-fueled oppression; she felt oppressed as well, insisting that any gay rights ordinance impeded her ability to pass on morality to children.

The claim from today's Anita Bryants is that the uncloseted existence of LGBT people creates an inappropriate cultural environment. These ideas are still perpetuated by conservative pastors who continue to use terms like “cancer” to describe homosexuality, or blame it for violence and disaster, and by Republican politicians such as Michele Bachmann, who claims that having gay teachers in schools would encourage kids to become gay.

Besides the fact that there is no sociological, psychological or anthropological data suggesting that LGBT parents, teachers, troop leaders or anyone in contact with children present any physical or developmental threat to children's well-being, there is no legal precedent that the perceived construction of an environment that threatens a group's beliefs violates the First Amendment.

According to the compelling interest doctrine established in 1963's Sherbert v. Verner and 1972's Wisconsin v. Yoder, laws cannot be considered to violate freedom of religion if they demonstrate a compelling interest. Preventing workplace discrimination, and enforcing civil rights in general, is a clearly compelling interest. In the major court cases addressing freedom of religion, more often than not there were specific instances of punishing or banning religious practice. In no case has the court ruled that the plaintiff was protected from the existence of a group or law that violated the plaintiff's sense of morality.

So the morality clause of the Columbus diocese violates the anti-discrimination ordinance, which demonstrates a compelling interest in the protection of employees. Hale, it should be noted, is not Catholic and did not demonstrate a threat to the existence of the school. Moreover, it seems foolish to expel gay teachers in an attempt to protect religious freedom in educational institutions when around the country, straight female teachers continue forming sexual relationships with their male students, corporal punishment occurs without parents' consent, and lesson plans are under-stimulating or factually wrong.

Aren't these contributors to a negative environment more than having an LGBT or unmarried pregnant teacher? And really, aren't they more compelling reasons to fire a teacher?

It's been 36 years since Anita Bryant fought against the Dade County ordinance. Anti-discrimination laws have multiplied, and recently a number of politicians have come out in support of gay rights. But it isn't enough.

Like Wilson, Hale did not “out” herself at the Catholic high school. Her mother's obituary listed her and her partner as survivors. Wilson was fired after accidentally outing himself in the classroom while talking about the Nazis' persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust.

He went on to create LGBT History Month to educate people about important LGBT individuals. Hale's devoted students have launched a Change.org petition to reinstate her.

Cases of teachers being fired for homosexuality, from Wilson to Hale, are an affront to civil rights, not an acceptable outlet for religious freedom.

Rachel Wayne, a UF graduate student in visual anthropology, is the stage manager for a new play based on Rodney Wilson's life, “Outburst” at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre in Gainesville through May 19. It was written by High Springs resident Leroy Clark. Those interested in LGBT history and rights are encouraged to attend.

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