Discrimination Behind a Religious Veil

In March, Skutt Catholic High School speech coach Matt Eledge led his team to their fourth consecutive state championship. But soon after the state championships, school officials told Eledge his contract would not be renewed for the following school year. The decision came after Eledge informed the school that he and his partner, Elliot, were planning on getting married.

Students at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, Nebraska, are speaking out in support of an English teacher and speech team coach.  Students and fellow staffers who have launched a campaign calling for Eledge’s reinstatement have also alleged the school threatened to fire him if he told his students.

KETV reported that during the school’s annual fundraising walk, some students wore T-shirts that presented the Omaha Catholic school with a message and a challenge.  “I support Mr. Eledge,” the shirts read. The Human Rights Campaign logo was on the front, and on the back, the shirts quoted Jesus’ words from John 13:34: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Skutt Catholic President Jon McMahon defended the decision in a letter to the school community.  “If a staff member cannot commit to Catholic church teachings and doctrines, he or she cannot continue to be on staff at Skutt Catholic,” he wrote.

Eledge, 28, has been a teacher at Skutt Catholic since 2010. He has said that he was fully aware of the risks of working at a Catholic school. But he ended up falling in love with the school — especially the speech team. He helped coach the team to four consecutive state championships, according to KETV.

“For people who don’t know the community, it seems like just another fun club, but for those involved, you develop the most meaningful relationships,” Eledge said. “You’re teaching kids how to believe in themselves, use their voices, be proud of who they are. I developed really great relationships with the kids and their family members.”

Although Eledge was single when he entered the school, he later started dating. When his partner’s mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, the two decided that they wanted to get married and make sure she could be at the ceremony.  Eledge said he took the news to school officials in early April, which is when his boss informed him that his employment contract wouldn’t be renewed.

Same-sex couples aren’t legally allowed to tie the knot in Nebraska. Omaha has an anti-bias ordinance on the books that protects LGBT people from workplace discrimination. But experts told the AP that the school is likely protected by a religious exception.

But the Skutt Catholic students certainly aren’t alone in their support for LGBT rights. Studies show that the majority of American Catholics don’t agree with the church’s official stance on gay marriage. The Public Religion Research Institute found that 61 percent of white Catholics and 60 percent of Hispanic Catholics in America support allowing gay and lesbian couples to tie the knot.  Younger Catholics are especially likely to favor legalizing same-sex marriage. A Pew Research Center study found that three-quarters of Catholics under the age of 30 support same-sex marriage.

Matthew Eledge is the latest teacher to face unemployment because a Catholic school’s administration chose not to renew his contract after officials learned about his engagement to another man.  In Des Moines, Iowa, Tyler McCubbin, a substitute teacher at Dowling Catholic High School, was denied a full-time job when administrators conducted a background check that included a scan of his Facebook page, and learned he was gay and engaged.

I believe it is rarely warranted for a church to claim religious exception, especially a Christian church who claim to follow Jesus’s example of unconditional love and except.  Furthermore, I do not believe that any religious organization should be allowed to discriminate and hide behind he law.  Sadly though, the U.S. Supreme Court set a national precedent in 2012, allowing religious schools to take sexual orientation into account in the hiring and firing of employees.

“They could certainly file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it’s unlikely they’ll prevail in a claim,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.  “Religious schools are going to have the ability to hire and fire teachers consistent with the school’s faith views.”  Warbelow added, “When they see a beloved teacher who has done an excellent job, being fired for celebrating a life milestone, it invokes in these students the deepening understanding of an injustice.”

What I find as one of the saddest parts of these stories is that this happened in states with LGBT protections, gay teachers like myself who teach in states where no such protections exist are at the mercy of our employer.  Alabama, being a right-to-work state, doesn’t even have to show cause for firing someone.  We desperately need LGBT protections and religious organizations should not be able to hide behind loopholes and discriminate, especially when they profess to follow Jesus, yet do the opposite of what Jesus would do 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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