Vow of Silence

St. Mary's Academy hired a rising star. She says they fired her for being gay.

ST. ELSEWHERE: Lauren Brown says St. Mary's Academy withdrew her contract after learning she has a girlfriend. "It hurts a lot," she says, "to be told, 'We will offer you your full year's salary for you to not do your job.'"

Lauren Brown seemed a perfect match for St. Mary's Academy

The 27-year-old from Bloomington, Ind., graduated in 2010 with a math degree from Lewis & Clark College.  

She made such a strong impression that Lewis & Clark hired her right after graduation to work in the admissions department, where her boss says she excelled.  

After five years there, Brown decided she wanted to work more directly with students and decided to take a pay cut to work at St. Mary's as a college counselor.  

St. Mary’s has long been one of the state’s top prep schools. Although the downtown Portland all-girls’ high school is Catholic, St. Mary’s served girls from all backgrounds since its founding in 1859. The school’s mission statement pledges “a diverse community” with a “dedication to social justice.” 

Brown was thrilled in April when St. Mary’s offered her a job for the fall term. “I honestly visualized my entire life there during my interview,” she says. “Retirement seems like the only reason anyone ever leaves St. Mary’s.” 

Then, during the summer, Brown told a top school official that she was gay. That changed everything.  

Documents Brown shared with WW show St. Mary's withdrew its job offer this month—and promised Brown a year's salary and benefits to keep her quiet.  

Brown declined. “To sign a contract that’s going to affect the rest of my life, and my passion for advocating for LGBT youth and LGBT people—there’s no way I could sign that,” Brown says. “I could never live with myself.” 

St. Mary's longtime leader says she had to withdraw Brown's contract to remain loyal to Catholic doctrine. 

“We understand that others may hold different values, and we respect the right of individuals in society to do so,” school president Christina Friedhoff said in a statement. “At the same time, as a Catholic high school, we are obligated to follow current Catholic teachings regarding same-sex marriage in our employment practices.” 

There's a problem with that explanation.  

Brown says she's not married or engaged to her girlfriend—she says she merely asked in July what would happen if she got married. A lawyer for St. Mary's disagrees, saying Brown told school officials she planned to marry her girlfriend this fall. Records show the school asked her to sign a separation agreement saying her "intent to enter into a same-sex marriage" was why she lost her job.

Brown’s lawyer, Gloria Trainor, says the school is splitting hairs.  “Supporting same-sex marriage is the way you support and respect same-sex relationships,” Trainor says. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Oregon since May of 2014. Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample has decried the legalization. He issued a statement this week to WW supporting St. Mary’s “in upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church.” 

Brown's dismissal places St. Mary's in the center of a national fight about when religious organizations can claim they're exempt from anti-discrimination laws. It also threatens to open rifts at a Catholic high school where lesbian students are welcome, but LGBT faculty must remain in the closet. 

“Some of my dearest colleagues in social justice came out of St. Mary’s,” says Jeanna Frazzini, co-director of Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group. “When folks at the school hear about what’s happening, they’ll be concerned—and they’ll want to see significant changes.” 

St. Mary's initially embraced Brown. 

Principal Kelli Clark welcomed Brown to the school staff in May. Clark added a handwritten note to the letter: “Lauren—you are going to have so much fun here!” 

St. Mary’s sent her a contract in July. On July 22, Brown received an email from an administrator, asking her to complete a biography. “Tell us about your spouse,” says the email Brown showed WW. “Tell us about your children. Talk to us about YOU! It’s your choice as to what you would like to share!” 

The next day, Brown says, Clark called to encourage Brown to consider applying for an even more prominent job, director of admissions. 

Brown says she asked Clark in that phone call what she should say in her biography, since she has a girlfriend. Brown also asked: Would she be allowed to bring her girlfriend to school events? What if she got married? She says Clark told her that was uncharted territory, but that Clark would support her. 

Brown says Clark called back July 30 with a different message: “It may not work out.” 

Brown met with Clark and Friedhoff at St. Mary's on Aug. 4. She says the meeting lasted more than three hours, with both women pressuring her to sign a separation agreement that offered her six months' salary in return for a promise not to sue the school or talk about why she lost the job. 

The agreement, which Brown showed to WW, included a script for Brown to follow. “Brown may post on her social media pages the following statement to describe her separation from St. Mary’s: ‘Friends, I want to let you all know I will no longer be at St. Mary’s in the fall. Please message me if you know of any jobs available. {3’” 

(The two characters at the end of the statement were intended by the school to read as a heart emoticon, Brown says.) 

The agreement also said Brown could give the following reply if people asked why she had been dismissed: "I learned that my intent to enter into a same-sex marriage is in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church."

St. Mary's attorney Scott Seidman says Brown asked for these statements. Brown says they were written by school officials. 

When Brown pushed back, the school increased its offer to a full year's salary, $41,538, plus benefits. 

Brown left the meeting without signing. She called Gloria Trainor, a friend she has since hired as her attorney. Brown says she hasn't decided whether to sue St. Mary's. 

Friedhoff says St. Mary's continues to value diversity.

"This is not an easy situation," she says. "As with all matters of faith, we strive to live out the values of the Gospel while struggling with the complexities of today's world."

 Brown says she hopes by telling her story instead of taking the money, she'll set an example for St. Mary's students not to be ashamed of who they are. She also hopes her experience will open eyes to discrimination taking place in one of the nation's most gay-friendly cities. 

“Portlanders need to know that it’s happening right here,” Brown says. “It’s not just in a small town in Pennsylvania, or Indiana or Texas. This is Portland.” 

WWeek 2015

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