Church & state: Double coverage challenge in Seattle

I often ding mainstream media for lapses on religious doctrine. I also criticize them for ignorance of legalities that deal with religion. The story of Mark Zmuda, the gay administrator who was fired from a Catholic school, gives me a twofer.

The Seattle-based educator says Eastside Catholic School didn’t tell him not to marry his partner. He also accuses the Archdiocese of Seattle of pressuring the school to run him out. Says TV station King 5:

Mark Zmuda filed a complaint for damages against Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese Friday. Zmuda told reporters the school was initially supportive of his marriage, but said he believes the school changed its position under pressure from the church.

“The information we have is that there was involvement from the archdiocese. Pressure was put on the school to fire Mark,” said Richard Friedman, Zmuda’s attorney.

“I was asked by the school to break my wedding vows to keep my job. I was told I could either divorce or be fired. How could anyone ask anyone else to make that choice? I was fired,” said Zmuda.

Other media have gotten, shall we say, enthusiastic about the case. USA Today ran an AP story that reported the lawsuit even before it was filed. Huffington Post reported the same -- even saying in the headline that the lawsuit had already been filed, although the story itself said only that Zmuda was planning to file.

All that strikes me as a journalistic lapse. I don't know HuffPost's and AP's and USA Today's editorial policies; but at the newspaper where I worked until late 2012, we didn’t announce lawsuits, or protests or demonstrations, until they'd been filed. Often, we found, people wouldn’t follow through after they got their publicity.

I could recite the GetReligion litany on mainstream media taking sides -- quoting, for one thing, students and parents who support Zmuda but not those who support the school's decision -- but let's not make it a threefer. With this one, we'll look at church, then state.

A gold star for King 5 for quoting a statement from the archdiocese that it "has no authority to direct employment decisions for the school." It would have been nice to point out what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and marriage as well.

King 5 also could have asked about the school's website while reporting:

Zmuda said that he applied for the job, the school’s website read, “it did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sexual orientation.” He also said the employee handbook indicated the school did not discriminate.

“If I had read the school’s website and it had said, ‘We do not hire gay men or gay men who marry,’ I would have never taken the job at Eastside Catholic,” said Zmuda.

Did the website really say that? Was the statement taken down? Who would know? King 5's curiosity seems to run out at this point. Also, is it possible that Catholic schools hire gays who are celibate and accept the moral teachings of the church? The issue is public opposition to the church's doctrines.

Now, the legalities. None of the articles by KIRO, HuffPost or USA Today show much awareness of a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that acknowledged the right of a religious group to hire and fire.

The New York Times said the decision, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., was "surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity." It added:

Chief Justice Roberts devoted several pages of his opinion to a history of religious freedom in Britain and the United States, concluding that an animating principle behind the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses was to prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups generally and in their selection of their leaders in particular.

“The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” he wrote, “and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

The Seattle Times on March 7 seemed at least dimly conscious of this:

One focus of attention in the legal case could be whether Zmuda’s job included providing religious teaching. Courts have held churches can discriminate when hiring people into positions advancing their religions.

At Friday’s news conference, Zmuda acknowledged that he led the school’s daily prayer once a month, but said he regarded it a routine task that any teacher at the school would do, and was not specifically providing religious instruction.

Hmmm, but a Times story on the previous day says Zmuda did much more:

Zmuda claims that his duties were unrelated to religious practices -- that those duties were “no different than the job duties of a vice principal at a public school or nonreligious private school.”

But the school counters that his duties were “inextricably intertwined with the religious practice and activities of the church,” as outlined in the employee handbook he signed. They add that while at Eastside, he served as Eucharistic minister at some of Eastside Masses and liturgies, and delivered the opening prayer over the public-address system for staff and students, among other duties.

Shouldn't an editor have tried to reconcile the second piece with the first? And Zmuda signed a covenant? What did it say? What did the handbook say about sexuality and teachers supporting church teachings or, at the very least, remaining silent about their opposition?

The March 6 piece also offers a smart appraisal of Washington State law:

Zmuda’s attorneys appear to be taking advantage of an opening created last month when the state Supreme Court ruled that religious nonprofits, like Eastside for example, can be sued for job discrimination if an employee’s work was unrelated to religion.

Before that ruling, attorneys seldom filed discrimination lawsuits against religious nonprofits in Washington state courts, where they knew there was no protection, and instead went to federal court.

Federal law, however, does not count sexual orientation as a protected class in employment discrimination.

However, the 2012 Supreme Court decision addressed that, too:

In a concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the courts should get out of the business of trying to decide who qualifies for the ministerial exception, leaving the determination to religious groups.

“The question whether an employee is a minister is itself religious in nature, and the answer will vary widely,” he wrote. “Judicial attempts to fashion a civil definition of ‘minister’ through a bright-line test or multifactor analysis risk disadvantaging those religious groups whose beliefs, practices and membership are outside of the ‘mainstream’ or unpalatable to some.”

How much would the U.S. Supreme Court ruling affect the Zmuda case? Sure wish someone could tell us. Sure wish someone would ask.

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