Matthew Barrett has received a settlement in his suit against a Massachusetts Catholic high school which had rescinded their contract with him to be the food service director after they learned that he was legally married to another man.
The Boston Globe reported that the details of the financial settlement are undisclosed, but that the decision means the school, Fontbonne Academy, Dorchester, will not appeal a 2015 state court decision that the school discriminated against Barrett after listing his husband on an emergency contact form.
That earlier decision, which found the school discriminated against Barrett, was the first of its kind, according to legal experts, because it did not allow the school to claim a religious exemption to the state’s anti-discrimination law. The Globe reported that Barrett’s lawyer predicted that the settlement arrived at this week will have wide ramifications for future employment cases:
“Ben Klein, a lawyer with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) who represented Barrett in the case, said the settlement means the ruling against Fontbonne Academy stands, creating an important legal precedent that bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, regardless of religious conviction.
” ‘This is a case that there was not a factual dispute about whether discrimination occurred, but whether they had a permissible reason,’ Klein said. ‘They do not.’ ”
“Klein said he expected the case to have broad and lasting implications.
” ‘This is the first case in the country to rule that an employer has no religious justification for discrimination,’ Klein said. ‘Everyone deserves to be treated on their merits, and not based on whom they love or any other protective category.’ “
I admit that I am not a legal expert, but I am reluctant to share’s Klein’s optimism about this case. While I sincerely hope that this decision will become a precedent, I fear that the precedent might be limited, at best, to Massachusetts, since this was a state court ruling. Anti-discrimination laws across the nation are written and interpreted very differently from one another. I am glad for Barrett’s victory, but I think it will still require more legal disputes to end the terrible scourge of Catholic institutions discriminating against married lesbian and gay employees.
The December court decision about the school’s discrimination was very specific to this particular case. The news story quoted part of Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins’ reasoning:
“Requiring Fontbonne to retain a food service director who has done nothing more than list a same-sex husband as an emergency contact does not significantly and seriously burden Fontbonne’s expressive situation.”
Religious liberty debates still rage in state houses and courtrooms, and I expect that similar cases will be decided in various ways before one of them makes it to the Supreme Court for a final decision. As happened in the sexual abuse crisis, it is very disheartening that Catholic leaders and institutions end up being forced to do the right thing because of legal decisions, instead of being moved by the Gospel’s call for avoiding judgmental discrimination.
Leaders at Fontbonne Academy were gracious in their reaction to the court decision, saying in a statement:
“Fontbonne Academy expresses deep gratitude to Mr. Barrett for his willingness to come together with us in a spirit of conciliation, and wishes him well as the school moves ahead in its mission to foster educational excellence and social justice in an open and inclusive community.”
May this renewal of their commitment to social justice and inclusion contain a more open and welcoming attitude than they expressed in Barrett’s case.
Barrett’s own statement about the decision reads somewhat like a hope-filled prayer for the future:
“It’s just a relief to have this off our shoulders. We’ve gone through a lot and we’re happy it’s behind us now. We just hope it doesn’t happen to someone else.”
For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
NewBostonPost.com: “Catholic school settles case that pit gay rights against religious liberty”