Eastside Catholic students rally around ousted vice principal
Eastside Catholic High School says Mark Zmuda’s marriage to his same-sex partner violates Catholic teachings and a contract he signed when he was hired by the school. Students called the rule “totally unfair” and walked out of class in protest on Thursday.
Seattle Times staff reporters
When Eastside Catholic High School ended the employment of its vice principal for marrying his same-sex partner, it joined a growing list of Catholic institutions that have fired gay employees for marrying, announcing wedding plans or advocating too enthusiastically for gay marriage.
The terminations — more than 15 across the country in the last two years or so — continue, despite what appears to be a softening by Pope Francis on a number of contentious church issues, including homosexuality and gay unions.
Friday will be the last day at Eastside Catholic for vice principal and swim coach Mark Zmuda, 38, who joined the staff about a year and a half ago.
On Thursday afternoon the Sammamish school announced that Friday classes would be canceled and the school would close early for Christmas break due to forecast snow “and in light of the difficult day” the school had had after hundreds of students staged a sit-in and rally against the dismissal that drew widespread media attention.
Their protest spread via texts and Twitter to students at other area Catholic schools. Seattle Preparatory School students showed solidarity with a similar protest.
Mike Patterson, an attorney for the Archdiocese of Seattle and for Eastside Catholic, said the process that led to Zmuda’s departure began about two weeks ago.
“We became aware of his same-sex marriage through some other employees at the school who indicated that he had related that to them,” said Patterson.
Officials gave conflicting messages about the nature of Zmuda’s departure, insisting that he had resigned even as the school, in a letter to parents, stated that his employment had been terminated because he violated his contract.
“He resigned,” Patterson said Thursday afternoon. “I just spoke with him within the last two hours. He agrees he resigned.”
Zmuda did not return calls from The Times.
Whether Zmuda left voluntarily or was forced out, once he married another man his fate at the school was sealed.
While parochial schools and other Catholic institutions do hire gay people, many employees, particularly those in schools overseen by dioceses, sign a contract promising to uphold the teachings of the church as a condition of their employment. Same-sex unions violate church teachings.
“Mark’s same-sex marriage over the summer violated his employment contract with the school,” stated the letter to Eastside Catholic parents.
In recognition of their constitutional rights, faith-based employers generally are afforded greater latitude than secular employers in complying with anti-discrimination laws.
Eastside Catholic president Sister Mary Tracy said she discussed Zmuda’s case in person with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain within the last two weeks and they had what she described as a collaborative conversation.
Sartain didn’t give her an explicit order to fire Zmuda, Tracy said. Rather, “We were directed to comply with the teachings of the church.”
“The Archdiocese works through me as the head of the school,” Tracy said. “It was clear that this is the teaching of the church. I know what we need to do.”
Patterson said he and Tracy met with Zmuda in a cordial meeting on Tuesday and everyone understood that Zmuda could no longer work at Eastside Catholic.
“It was just one of those situations where he knew ... that he needed to comport with the [teachings] of the church, and his same-sex marriage was not comporting with that,” Patterson said.
Patterson said Zmuda’s same-sex marriage, not the fact that he is gay, is the reason he cannot work for the school.
“He’s a great administrator,” Patterson said.
“We fully support him. We’re going to give him glowing reference letters, all that sort of thing. But Eastside Catholic doesn’t have the power to change that law,” Patterson said, referring to church teachings.
Students “pretty upset”
Tracy said she informed the school staff of Zmuda’s termination at a regularly scheduled faculty meeting Thursday morning and word spread quickly among students.
Senior Christian Leider, 18, said he found out on Twitter.
“The students were pretty upset about that so we all came together and rebelled against it,” he said. “Once one person found out it went on Twitter and then everyone found out.”
He and others started rounding up students for a sit-in at the school commons area around 9 a.m.
He said the students then hiked outside to the turnoff for the street that winds up a hill to the campus to show their support for Zmuda to the media gathered there.
“We did not know he was gay before today,” Leider said. “He’s always looking out for the best in everyone and he always wants everyone to do their best.”
Sophia Cerino, a freshman at Eastside Catholic, said most students support the rights of gays to marry.
“Just because I’m Catholic doesn’t mean I need to believe every rule the church has,” Cerino said. “We think the rule over gay marriage is totally unfair. Everyone seems to think the same thing — that we should all be treated equal.”
When the students were gathered on the street, she said, Zmuda came to talk to them about what had happened.
“He told us he had gotten fired because he is gay and married. He told us to grow up, get a job and find true love. He was crying and told us what we were doing meant a lot to him.”
According to the school’s website, Zmuda previously worked at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and has held a variety of teaching and administrative positions for the last 13 years.
He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., and a Master of Education degree in educational leadership and policy studies with principal certification from the University of Texas.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell”
A national gay-rights group condemned his termination.
“At a moment when Pope Francis is urging the Catholic hierarchy to put aside judgment ... it’s shameful that this school and others are ignoring that hopeful message in favor of explicit and baseless discrimination,” said Charles Joughin, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign.
Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, author and former editor of America, a weekly Catholic magazine, said Catholic institutions tend to ignore an employee’s sexual orientation and activities as long as those activities are not widely known.
But entering into a same-sex marriage, he said, crosses the line.
“Catholic institutions have been following ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ long before the U.S. miliary was,” he said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, it wasn’t unheard-of for people employed by the church to be fired if they divorced and then remarried.
“We are seeing greater acceptance (of gay marriage) in American society — among young people and among a majority of Catholics,” Reese said.
“The church isn’t going to be celebrating gay marriage, but eventually people aren’t going to be fired for this kind of thing.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.