Norfolk County Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins said in a Dec. 16 ruling that Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Milton, had violated the rights of Matthew Barrett in July 2013 when it rescinded its job offer for him to become food service director because the position does not include “formally presenting the gospel values or the … teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Barrett’s lawsuit said the offer was withdrawn days after he had accepted the position and completed an employee new hire form on which he listed his husband, Ed Suplee, as his emergency contact.
Barrett originally filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in January 2014, alleging discrimination by the school, which was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston. The case was moved to Massachusetts Superior Court in May 2014. An attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, represented Barrett.
Fontbonne Academy defended its action, arguing that as a Catholic institution it has control of its mission and message, and Barrett’s same-sex marriage was inconsistent with that message. The school also said that Barrett was aware that all employees at the school are asked to further the Catholic message.
The school noted that during Barrett’s job interview, he had been asked if he would be a “minister of the mission” and model Catholic teachings and principals and he had said he would.
Barrett completed the new employee form only after being offered the position.
“The undisputed facts establish the employer’s motivation with unparalleled clarity. Fontbonne declined to hire a qualified food service employee because he was a spouse in a same-sex marriage,” Wilkins wrote in his ruling.
GLAD noted in a statement that the “next step in the case will be a hearing on damages.”
In the same statement, Barrett’s attorney, Bennett Klein, said that by firing his client, Fontbonne “came down on the wrong side of the law.”
“Religiously-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” Klein said.
Catholic organizations, including the Cardinal Newman Society and the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts issued statements condemning the ruling.
The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts called the decision “a frontal assault on religious freedom.”
“Religious freedom consists not merely of the right to worship, but of the right of religious institutions to govern their internal affairs free of state interference. … Judge Wilkins’ decision would compel Catholic institutions to hire those who reject and despise Catholic teaching, fatally impairing the constitutionally protected right of those institutions to carry on their mission,” said C.J. Doyle, league director.
Denise Donohue, deputy director of K-12 education programs for the Cardinal Newman Society, said that students need consistent “messages … in areas of ethics and morality” throughout the school day.
“Hiring individuals who are not on mission, whether they are a classroom teacher, librarian or grounds keeper, weakens Catholic identity and undermines the mission of the school,” she said.
Dwight G. Duncan, professor of law at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School of Law, told The Pilot, newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, that he found the court’s decision to be “pretty solid, from a strictly legal point of view.” However, he noted the case is the first of its kind in Massachusetts without legal precedent and is unlikely to have immediate affect beyond the commonwealth.
“My understanding is that the exemption for religious employers from employment discrimination law is broader under federal civil rights law though. But because the case is based on peculiarities of Massachusetts law, it may not pose a larger threat to religious freedom generally,” he said.
Labbe is a reporter for The Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.
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