By Natalie Orenstein
Controversial new language in the contracts of teachers who work at schools that come under the jurisdiction of the Oakland Diocese has provoked an outcry in the East Bay Catholic education community.
The language, which was added by Oakland’s recently appointed Bishop Michael Barber, pertains to how teachers conduct themselves in their personal lives. It asks them to pledge to conform to church teachings outside the workplace, and is seen by many as targeting non-heterosexual teachers. The move has prompted some teachers to resign, rather than sign the contract, which the diocese says is mandatory.
The clause in question states:
“Employee acknowledges that the school operates within the philosophy of Catholic education and retains the right to employ individuals who demonstrate an ability to serve in accordance with that philosophy. In both the employee’s personal and professional life, the employee is expected to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals, and to do nothing that tends to bring discredit to the school or to the Diocese of Oakland.”
The issue affects several schools in Oakland, including Bishop O’Dowd High School, but just one school in Berkeley, the School of the Madeleine. St. Mary’s College High School is affiliated with the Diocese but is operated by the Christian Brothers, and its administration decided not to use the bishop’s new language in its contracts.
“It was our view that inserting such language was unnecessary and likely to be provocative,” Pete Imperial, St. Mary’s principal, said in an email to parents. “We trust each of our people to make personal decisions rooted in his or her conscience and good judgment.”
All staff at the School of the Madeleine have signed the contract, but some parents at the K-8 school are concerned about the implications of the updated clause.
Previously, the contract did not refer to employees’ personal lives. Staff and parents at schools in the diocese have expressed fear that the updated language could endanger non-Catholic teachers, LGBT teachers and other teachers whose personal lives don’t conform to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Three teachers at Bishop O’Dowd have refused to sign the contract, effectively quitting.
School of the Madeleine Principal Ken Willers declined to comment on the updated language. But several of the school’s parents have signed a petition created by a group of concerned parents that asks the bishop to reinstate the 2013-14 contract/handbook.
The petition says: “Many are considering stopping or have decided to stop making financial contributions until this controversy is resolved.” And: “Many of us are dealing with fair questions from our children about whether their schools continue to be the places of tolerance and inclusion that they love.”
Another Change.org petition titled Please Change This Contract was created by a senior at O’Dowd. This asks the bishop to reinstate the previous language, and it had secured more than 3,200 signatures at the time of writing, with a goal of reaching 5,000.
Asked if the bishop has reconsidered implementing the change for the upcoming school year given the community response, Mike Brown, a spokesperson for the diocese said: “The change has been implemented and the contract renewal process is completed. All but three of the contracts to over a 1,000 teachers have been signed. Those three are O’Dowd faculty.”
“I understand that they want teachers to be good role models but I think the way it was done was disappointing,” said William Tarantino, parent to two School of the Madeleine students and one who will begin in the fall, and husband to an employee of the school. “I think it was upsetting to a lot of parents — the wording, the direct reference to teachers’ personal lives, and the amount of time teachers were given to consider the language.”
“The only response I’ve heard is confusion, bewilderment, distress,” said Trish Plunkett, whose two kids are at the Madeleine elementary school. “I haven’t heard anyone say what a great idea this is. There still doesn’t seem like there was a problem, and it still doesn’t seem like it’s necessary, from an administrative standpoint.”
The principal has assured the Madeleine community that nothing will change at the school, said Tarantino, who signed the Change.org petition.
Parents “know that our school has a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said Tarantino. “People aren’t concerned about the kind of worst-case scenario that you read about happening at our particular school, but we do have parents that are going to be sending their kids to Oakland Diocese high schools, and who are concerned for our fellow parents at other schools where this may have more of an impact.”
Plunkett said she has spoken with teachers at the Madeleine, who found the language “distasteful and were disturbed by it.”
“It’s a terrible position to be in, to feel like this is a job you love, that you view as a calling, and then have to sign something you disagree with to keep it,” Plunkett said. “We respect [teachers] so much and we want to feel like they’re being treated respectfully, as professionals.”
Tarantino said he knows of at least one teacher at the school who is not Catholic.
According to a Q&A with the bishop in the Diocese of Oakland publication The Catholic Voice, nearly 20 percent of all diocese teachers are non-Catholic.
In the same interview, Barber says the updated language merely makes explicit “what has always been.”
“We have absolutely no interest in monitoring or prosecuting personal private lives,” the bishop said. “We have no ‘lists’ of prohibited behavior. There is no categorizing of individuals or groups. I have heard it said that we are targeting teachers who might be gay. This is manifestly untrue.”
It isn’t the first time this year that Barber’s views regarding homosexuality have been questioned. Parishioners at Berkeley’s Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish were surprised to hear in February that the new bishop had reassigned two popular priests, one of whom is openly gay. New leadership will be instated in July at Newman Hall, which serves many UC Berkeley students as well as Berkeley families and is known for its progressiveness.
Tarantino, who wrote a letter to Barber, said he trusts that the bishop does not intend to target certain teachers.
“I think that as a Catholic parent, I have to believe the bishop’s statement — that he said this is not going to intrude on faculty’s personal lives,” said Tarantino. “But I can also understand how teachers and other parents are very concerned about the language of the contract.”
Plunkett echoed his sentiments.
“I don’t distrust the bishop’s statement but I think it would be helpful for him to try to dialogue more about it. What is the concern, and what is this policy trying to address?” she said.
Diocese spokesman Mike Brown said that Barber will be meeting with a small group of O’Dowd teachers and administrators today, and with another group at De LaSalle High School in Concord next week, to discuss the new contract.
Barber has been bishop of Oakland for a year. There are 56 schools throughout the East Bay in the Oakland Diocese, but not all are subject to the contract.
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