Uphill battle for Ohio fired lesbian Catholic school teacher: Is a gym teacher a “minister”?

The controversial firing of Carla Hale, a gym teacher who worked for 19 years at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, is still generating headlines. Hale is now filing a complaint with the Columbus' Community Relations Commission and her local teachers union alleging discrimination; a Change.org petition has generated almost 120,000 signatures (though bishops are rarely swayed by such efforts).

Hale's treatment does seem to me particularly egregious; the great matter that prompted her firing after almost two decades of service was the name of her partner listed in parentheses in Hale's mother's obituary: "Carla (Julie) Hale." Columbus Bishop Frederick Campbell's judgment that Hale merited firing because of her "quasi-spousal" relationship (substantiated by seven characters in an obituary) seems to me a bit overblown, not to mention utterly lacking in pastoral sensitivity, given the circumstances of the revelation.

Unfortunately for Hale, she is most likely to run up against the so-called "ministerial exemption," which by and large allows churches to do whatever they want when it comes to someone judged by the courts (usually after assertion by churches) that the person in question has a ministerial function. I fully expect the Diocese of Columbus to argue that the Methodist Hale, as a gym teacher, was somehow a "minister" in the broad sense of the term. Courts generally take the church's word for it, and so I fear Hale doesn't have a chance.

That's all too bad, because once again the church through its institutions comes off as a self-righteous, tone-deaf organization seemingly on the lookout from any deviation on sexuality. Nothing in the obituary made any claims about same-sex marriage or sexual activiity; it merely acknowledged a family relationship between Hale and someone named "Julie," whom everyone assumes not only to be female but in some kind of inappropriate sexual relationship with Hale, a horrible violation to Christian charity. Since when in the family of Christ has "family" been restricted to one's opposite-gender spouse and children? 

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Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.