By Coby Hutzler and Aaron Mesh
The botched firing of a gay staffer by St. Mary's Academy could have the unintended consequence of creating greater workplace protections for LGBT employees at Catholic schools across Portland.
Last week, WW revealed that the Catholic all-girls prep school had withdrawn a contract offer to new employee Lauren Brown after she told school officials she's gay ("Vow of Silence," WW, Aug. 26, 2014).
Brown's story drew an immediate outcry. St. Mary's parents, students and alumni were furious that a school dedicated to educating young women in diversity and social justice had been quietly forcing its LGBT faculty and staff to remain in the closet.
The night after WW published Brown's story, St. Mary's backed down and announced a new hiring policy protecting LGBT employees, including those who get married, from job discrimination. Brown was not offered her job back—because the school had already given it to someone else.
Gay rights groups praised the reversal as a landmark decision for Catholic schools nationwide.
It was also a shift that St. Mary's leaders tried hard to avoid.
On Aug. 4, St. Mary's officials tried to pay Brown a year's salary—$41,538—in return for her keeping quiet and agreeing that her "intent to enter into a same-sex marriage" is why she lost her job. (Brown says she isn't engaged.) Brown's attorney, Gloria Trainor, now tells WW that St. Mary's officials contacted Brown three times in the days between their offer and WW's story.
"We would like to get a decision from you regarding the offer we made to you last Tuesday," school president Christina Friedhoff wrote Brown on Aug. 12. "If you need to meet again to accomplish this, please let us know."
In the following week, Brown says she received two phone calls from St. Mary's—one from principal Kelli Clark, and another from a mediator, asking her to meet again to sign the agreement.
Friedhoff confirmed to WW that school officials contacted Brown three times, and are now "working to schedule mediation."
When WW contacted St. Mary's on Aug. 24, the school responded through a crisis PR firm, Gard Communications. It then tried to pre-empt the story with a letter to parents saying the school faced "a difficult time" because of its obligation "to follow current Catholic teachings regarding same-sex marriage."
The school knew the controversy came at a delicate time. Classes start Sept. 2, and the school is preparing to raise tens of millions of dollars to double the size of its downtown campus.
In fact, as soon as word leaked of St. Mary's decision to fire Brown, students and alums began protesting online, using the social-media hashtag "#fightforsma." On Aug. 26, students dressed in rainbow garb a statue of St. Mary of Blessed Marie-Rose Durocher, the nun who founded of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Mayor Charlie Hales, Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and major donors Mary and Tim Boyle called on the school to reconsider.
Friedhoff announced that night that St. Mary's board had voted to change its hiring policy. On Aug. 27, Clark told parents in an assembly that the school had "acted out of fear" by withdrawing Brown's contract.
"It's time to bring our practices and policies in line with our mission and values," Clark said.
However reluctant the decision, St. Mary's policy change could set a precedent that allows Portland's other Catholic schools to follow.
Rene Sanchez, a visiting assistant professor of theological ethics at the University of Portland, says it's hard to predict the immediate effects of St. Mary's decision on other Catholic schools.
"Eventually, there's going be a shift toward greater acceptance and embracing all of those communities," Sanchez says. "This is not a year-or-two thing."
St. Mary's on Friday began a "continuing conversation" with the Archdiocese of Portland about its new hiring policy. Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage.
The three Portland-area Catholic high schools nearest to St. Mary's—Central Catholic, De La Salle North, and Jesuit—do not mention sexual orientation in their equal employment policies. De La Salle North declined to comment to WW, Jesuit could not be reached, and Central Catholic directed press inquiries to the Archdiocese of Portland.
Archdiocese spokesman David Renshaw says he won't discuss the implications of St. Mary's reversal for other area Catholic schools.
"We're just not commenting on the school policy issue while these sensitive negotiations are going on," Renshaw says.
Brown has agreed to her own mediation with St. Mary's.
"This success shows that together we really can move mountains," Brown said in a statement. "€œI am glad to know that what I experienced will never happen again at St. Mary's, and I am overjoyed that the current LGBT staff members can now feel secure knowing they can be out at work."
Claire Holley and Anthony Macuk contributed reporting to this story.
Correction: This story incorrectly identified a statue in front of the school. It is not St. Mary, but Blessed Marie-Rose Durocher, the nun who founded of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. WW regrets the error.