Shaela Evenson was about to begin her ninth year teaching at Butte Central Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Helena, Montana when she became pregnant with her first child. The news was at first met with enthusiasm and encouragement from the school principal, who gave no indication that being unmarried and pregnant would put Evenson’s job at risk. But just a few months later—less than two months before giving birth to her son—Evenson was fired.
The diocese had received an anonymous letter telling them that Evenson, who taught literature and physical education classes to children in grades six through eight, had become pregnant outside of marriage. After confirming this with the school principal, the diocesan superintendent asked Evenson to resign. When she refused, Evenson was sent an email telling her that she’d violated her employment contract because “having a child out of wedlock is considered ‘at variance with or contrary to polices of the school and the diocese and the moral and religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.’ ” As a result, Evenson was terminated early last year.
It is unclear whether the diocese knew Evenson was in a same-sex relationship or that her unborn child was conceived through artificial means. The school had always known that Evenson wasn’t Catholic, and since she taught non-religious subjects, this seemingly wasn’t a problem. And there was no indication that she’d been performing poorly in her job. But being a single mom on the faculty of a Catholic school was reason enough for her to be fired.
Evenson’s story garnered media attention and led to a lawsuit against the diocese for employment discrimination. The suit is still pending. But her case is far from unique. The firing of church employees—regardless of whether they are Catholic—for failing to adhere to church teachings in their personal lives has become an alarming trend in recent years.
Evenson isn’t the only single mom to be booted by a Catholic employer. Christa Dias, a computer teacher at two Ohio Catholic schools, was fired in 2010 for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The reason given for her termination wasn’t the pregnancy itself, but the fact that she’d used in vitro fertilization (IVF). Dias, who is also not Catholic, claimed she wasn’t even aware that the church is morally opposed to IVF and had no idea it would be grounds for termination.
In the cases of both Evenson and Dias, church officials could point to a visible sign of their dissonance from Catholic teaching—pregnancy outside of marriage. But that wasn’t so with Emily Herx, a married woman who began IVF treatments in 2010 when she and her husband were unable to conceive a child. Herx requested, and was granted, time off from her job teaching literature and language arts at an Indiana Catholic school to undergo IVF treatments. Her employee health plan, administered by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, even covered the procedure.
One year later, Herx again used sick time for a second round of IVF. Another teacher tipped off the school’s pastor, who brought Herx in for a private meeting. The pastor called Herx a “grave immoral sinner,” and she was told her teaching contract would not be renewed because her situation could cause scandal for the school and the church.
Herx never actually became pregnant and, as a married woman, what scandal would it have caused if she had? Her only offense was being honest about her reasons for requesting sick time, and her private medical situation should have neither been public knowledge nor a reason for her firing. (A jury agreed, and Herx claimed $1.9 million in a lawsuit; Dias also won a suit against her former employer.)
These firings paint a troubling picture of a church so concerned with ensuring moral purity among its workers that it misses the bigger picture. Certainly, the church should take great care in choosing the people who are entrusted to carry out its mission. And in some cases, an employee’s actions outside of work would indeed conflict with their professional role—a religious education director doubling as a spokesperson for a pro-choice group, for example. But should computer teachers, janitors, and cafeteria workers be held to the same standard?
Applying a moral purity test to employees at all levels, from diocesan leaders down to administrative support staff, runs contradictory to the very teachings the church is trying so hard to protect. How can a church that preaches a strong pro-life message in the public square maintain credibility when at the same time it fires a single woman for getting pregnant and choosing to keep her baby?
The recent firings haven’t been limited to schoolteachers, nor have they all been caused by pregnancy outside of marriage. In the vast majority of cases, the issue of concern is same-sex partnerships. Dozens of news stories in the past few years have detailed cases of employees, from parish musicians to gym teachers to food pantry workers, being fired either because they are gay or because they have entered into a legal marriage with their same-sex partner. In many cases, the employee’s sexuality was not a secret and was even made clear at the time they were hired. And often it has been an anonymous tip from one concerned party that led to the firing.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski took things a step further in January when he sent a letter to all archdiocesan employees warning them that “certain conduct, inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, could lead to disciplinary action, including termination.” The letter immediately followed Florida’s legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and Wenski made clear that any implied support of same-sex marriage, including actions outside the workplace and even on social media, could result in a trip to the unemployment line. Other dioceses, including San Francisco and Cincinnati, have also instituted morality clauses that govern employee behavior both on and off the job.
Such regulations raise a host of questions about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Would an employee who attends the same-sex wedding of their own child be fired for public support of same-sex marriage? What about a person who congratulates a friend on Facebook on getting married to someone of the same sex? In response to such questions, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati recently issued some clarifications on what may constitute a fireable offense, but the lines remain blurred for the rest of the country, with such decisions left to the whims of the local bishop and diocesan administration.
Another concern raised by recent firings is the fact that in most cases it was not a school, parish, or diocese looking to weed out employees, but rather anonymous individuals. In one case, a teacher was even fired over something that an anonymous source spotted in an obituary for the woman’s mother. When church leaders give this kind of power to self-appointed morality police, it only serves to create a culture of fear among employees. Does the church really want to create an environment where employees must constantly worry about what they say and who they trust both on and off the job, never knowing when something they say or do may be used to get them fired?
The selective scrutiny of focusing on only a handful of teachings related to sexuality also sets a double standard in the workplace. Employees have not been fired for social justice issues that conflict with Catholic teachings, such as supporting companies that exploit their workers or backing politicians whose policies are detrimental to the poor. And if unwed mothers are to be fired, what about a female employee living with her boyfriend outside of marriage? Or a male employee, single or married, who helps to conceive a child through IVF?
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a church of mercy, one that does not focus on the faults of its members or obsess over a narrow set of doctrinal issues. The church’s employment policies should take a similar approach. Instead of coldly putting Shaela Evenson out of work two months before she gave birth, just imagine what kind of message the church could have sent with a more merciful approach.
It is time to end the witch hunt for employees within the ranks of the church who may not always be living according to the letter of the law. If such a strict test were truly applied across the board so that anyone who sins were to be fired, everyone from the pope on down would lose their job. Instead of trying to purge the church of employees who may not meet the ideal, it is time to craft a new approach that appreciates their gifts and talents, recognizes the value of their contributions, and helps to point them—and all whom they encounter in their work—toward the gospel.
And the survey says…
1. Catholic institutions should fire employees who violate church teaching.
17% – Agree
83% – Disagree
2. Employees of Catholic institutions should not be required to live up to Catholic teachings in their private lives.
71% – Agree
29% – Disagree
3. Secret tip-offs to Catholic authorities about employees’ private lives are poisonous to our church.
90% – Agree
10% – Disagree
4. I don’t think the church or a Catholic organization should ever fire a pregnant employee, regardless of her marital status.
81% – Agree
19% – Disagree
5. I would be concerned about what my child and the other children would think if a teacher at my child’s Catholic grade school became pregnant out of wedlock.
32% – Agree
68% – Disagree
6. As long as I don’t publicly advocate against Catholic teaching, I should be eligible to work for a Catholic employer no matter what I believe about certain Catholic teachings.
84% – Agree
16% – Disagree
7. Contracts stipulating certain beliefs and behavior for employees of Catholic institutions do not reflect what Pope Francis has been saying about a church of mercy.
78% – Agree
22% – Disagree
8. Firings like those mentioned in this article make it more likely that both Catholics and non-Catholics would be reluctant to work for Catholic employers.
88% – Agree
12% – Disagree
9. All employees of Catholic organizations should sign a morality pledge requiring strict adherence to church teachings.
16% – Agree
84% – Disagree
10. If I worked for a Catholic organization and found out a coworker was living in conflict with church teaching, I would:
51% – Say nothing and stay out of it.
20% – Give them a friendly warning to be discreet and not cause scandal for our employer.
14% – Talk to them privately about their lifestyle choices and try to convince them to change.
2% – Report them to the person in charge immediately.
13% – Other
This survey appeared in the July 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 7, pages 29–33).
Results are based on survey responses from 419 USCatholic.org visitors.
Image: ©iStock/Bartek Szewczyk