Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mount St. Mary teacher fired for marrying her female partner

Posted By on Thu, Oct 17, 2013 at 8:54 PM

click to enlarge LEAVING MOUNT ST. MARY: Tippi McCullough.
  • LEAVING MOUNT ST. MARY: Tippi McCullough.
A news release this evening from the Human Rights Campaign, the country's leading advocate for LGBT civil rights, delivered the news that the principal of Mount St. Mary Academy had told a long-time teacher that she must resign or be fired because she married her female partner in New Mexico this week.

The teacher, Tippi McCullough, tells me she won't be returning to work there.

The Human Rights Campaign is calling on the school to reconsider.

“To fire a beloved teacher simply because she is gay is morally reprehensible,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native. “At a moment when Pope Francis is urging the Catholic hierarchy to put aside judgment and a decades-long campaign targeting devoted LGBT Catholics, it’s shameful that this school is ignoring that hopeful message in favor of explicit and baseless discrimination.”

I've since talked to McCullough, a 29-year teaching veteran who's taught English at the Mount for 15 years. She married her 14-year partner, Barb Mariani, a lawyer in the prosecuting attorney's office, yesterday in Albuquerque, in a state where same-sex marriages recently were legalized. They stopped en route to a planned visit to the Grand Canyon, reopened just in time for their honeymoon.

McCullough and Mariani confirm the account in the HRC release. McCullough got a call from a school secretary — 45 minutes after the marriage yesterday morning — telling her she risked losing her job if she married. She said the secretary said, somewhat mystifyingly, that the school had learned of the coming marriage through "the diocese." After hitting the road to Arizona, McCullough checked her phone and found urgent messages from Wolfe. She called.

"She told me she never thought the day would come, that I was a great teacher and that she would give me a glowing recommendation if I resigned," McCullough said. "She said her hands were tied when I signed a legal document."

McCullough said a contract clause allows dismissal for a lifestyle contrary to church teaching. She she asked Wolfe for an explanation of how she'd violated that clause. "She said she wasn't going to get into a theological discussion and there was nothing she could do."

McCullough will get 30 days severance pay and an opportunity to pick up her things and arrange for COBRA continuing health insurance coverage. She said she's not sure what her vocational future holds.
She said she'd been encouraged by support from other teachers. She said, too, that she was sure Wolfe knew of her long relationship with Mariani.  They never discussed it explicitly, she said, but "she knew." In their discussion yesterday, "I told her I thought it was unfair, that I was being singled out for being gay." She said Wolfe told her the nun who once headed the school had once escorted out an unmarried pregnant teacher.

She said the recent legalization of marriage in New Mexico and federal court decisions that raise the likelihood of equal benefits for married same-sex partners had helped contribute to their decision to marry. "Everyone out here was wonderful," she said.

McCullough said she had asked Wolfe if Mount St. Mary was a diocese school or a Sisters of Mercy school, meaning the order of nuns that has long operated it. She said Wolfe replied, "It's a Catholic school."

Mariani, too, said she thought McCullough had been singled out.

"They hire people who aren't Catholic, with a lot of different belief systems. What's upsetting to me is that the morality clause covers birth control, premarital sex and they are certainly not pro-choice. It's disturbing to me that no straight teacher is called in and asked if she's using birth control or unmarried and having premarital sex with a boyfriend."

She said McCullough had been more than discreet. McCullough said she'd never talked about her sexual orientation with students.

The HRC's full news release follows. I've attempted to reach the principal, Diane Wolfe, and school president Karen Flake, but haven't gotten responses.

No law protects McCullough from firing. Some states and cities have employment non-discrimination laws that protect people of different sexual orientation. But even so, a religious institution citing church teaching would be exempt .

Mount St. Mary has been in the news recently because of a criminal case in which a former teacher, Kelly O'Rourke, pleaded guilty to a sexual affair with a student and another teacher was convicted for failing to promptly report the sex abuse. The women faculty members at the all-girls school were fired after Wolfe learned of the relationship. But sexual abuse of a minor is a crime. Sex between consenting adults is not, nor is their marriage in New Mexico, though Arkansas does not permit same-sex marriage. It's "ridiculous" if anyone were to cite that case as precipitating action against McCullough, Mariani said. "There's a huge difference." Indeed.

Here's what the HRC said:

NEWS RELEASE

Washington – The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, is calling on Mount St. Mary’s Academy in Little Rock, AR to immediately cease discriminatory employment practices targeting their LGBT teachers.

Yesterday, Tippi McCullough, a teacher at Mount St. Mary’s, traveled to New Mexico to marry her partner of 14 years, Barb Mariani. According to Mariani, shortly after their wedding ceremony, a secretary at the school called Tippi and said that if she got married she would be fired—telling her that she was calling her for her own protection. Later, a second call came from the school principal, who, upon confirming Tippi had married her partner, purportedly told her, “I never thought this day would come, but I have to terminate you,” and that Tippi could resign to avoid being publicly fired.

“To fire a beloved teacher simply because she is gay is morally reprehensible,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native. “At a moment when Pope Francis is urging the Catholic hierarchy to put aside judgment and a decades-long campaign targeting devoted LGBT Catholics, it’s shameful that this school is ignoring that hopeful message in favor of explicit and baseless discrimination.”

“It is impossible to believe that the first call we received after the most joyous occasion of our lives was a vocal pink slip,” said McCullough’s partner, Barb Mariani. “Tippi has been a beloved teacher at Mount St. Mary’s for 15 years and it’s a sad day when she is fired for doing nothing more than committing to the person she loves – me.”

In response to this developing situation, HRC is calling on Mount St. Mary’s students, teachers, donors, community members and all fair-minded Arkansans to speak out against this injustice. Recent polling found that 86 percent of Christians believed the very tenets of their faith compelled them to support protections for LGBT people under the law—and American Catholics are leading the way in their support for equality.

According to Mariani, the school’s principal was aware that McCullough was gay and knew her of their relationship, but that didn’t deter her from threatening McCullough with termination under her contract’s morality clause. When Tippi pressed the principal about the irrationality of the termination, the principal purportedly said, “I’m not going to get in a theological conversation with you.” She told McCullough if she resigned, she would write her a “glowing recommendation.” As yet, Tippi has not made a final decision about her next course of action.

Mount St. Mary’s is a Roman Catholic, all-girls high school. Under federal statutory and constitutional provisions, religious institutions are able to make employment decisions based on their faith traditions. That doesn’t mean this kind of discrimination has to happen. HRC calls on Mount St. Mary’s officials to end these unjust practices.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.

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