Equality has to be fought for

January 27, 2014

The LGBT movement can learn from a recent struggle of Seattle Catholic high school students, argues Keegan O’Brien in an article written for TheNation.com.

LAST DECEMBER 19, the Seattle archdiocese fired Mark Zmuda, the vice principal of Eastside Catholic High School. His transgression? Enacting his legal, constitutional right to marry his partner, another man.

The archdiocese's logic in pushing Zmuda out of the school rests on the idea that same-sex marriage violates church teachings, something he as a school administrator is required to uphold.

This was something both parties fully understood, claims Mike Patterson--a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Seattle, who held a private, closed-door meeting with Zmuda, where, according to Patterson, "It was just one of those situations where he knew...that he needed to comport with the [teachings] of the church, and his same-sex marriage was not comporting with that."

Whatever the reasoning, the facts are clear: once Zmuda married a man, his time at Eastside Catholic High School was over. "The dismissal of the vice principal was based on the Archdiocese of Seattle's authority over a Catholic school," Principal Polly Skinner wrote in an e-mail to an Eastside graduate the day news of Zmuda's dismissal broke. "We are saddened and as a Catholic school, bound by Catholic Teaching regarding Same Sex marriage."

Students rally support for Mark Zmuda
Students rally support for Mark Zmuda

Thankfully, the students of Eastside had something to teach their administrators and the archdiocese that Thursday morning. Upon hearing the news of Zmuda's planned departure, outraged students decided to take matters into their own hands and flocked to the school cafeteria where they began a sit-in, refusing to leave until Mr. Z (as they affectionately liked to call him) was reinstated.

Students also took to social media to spread the word about Zmuda's firing and the word quickly spread. Learning of the news on Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of students at other Seattle area Catholic high schools took action by organizing their own protests and banner drops to demonstrate their solidarity.

More than 400 students--nearly the entire student body--eventually came to occupy Eastside's cafeteria. Moved by his students' actions, Zmuda paid the occupiers a visit, during which he told them, "Be the leaders of tomorrow that I know you all can be, because you all can make a difference.... You've made a difference in my life today."

After filling up their cafeteria, students took their demonstration to the streets and rallied outside of the school, where reporters and news teams visited them and helped broadcast their struggle to a national audience.

SOME CLAIM that the Archdiocese of Seattle was within its rights to fire Zmuda, pointing out the rights and freedoms guaranteed to religious institutions.

But what about the basic rights and freedoms of LGBTQ people to be treated equally with respect and dignity? Religious freedom need not entail the right to practice and promote discrimination.

Zmuda's case is still roiling the region. Some are hoping he will get his job back; others are seeking a change in the school's employment practices.

Unfortunately, Zmuda's firing is an all-too-common occurrence for LGBTQ people in a country lacking LGBTQ-inclusive federal anti-discrimination laws.

The ouster of Zmuda comes amid a wave of firings and forced resignations of gay men and lesbians from Roman Catholic institutions across the country, in most cases prompted not directly by employees' sexuality but by their decisions to marry as same-sex marriage becomes legal in an increasing number of states.

Currently, only 17 states and the District of Colombia have LBGTQ-inclusive employment protections. Zmuda's story is an example of why passing a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act--one which does not exempt religious institutions--is of paramount importance to combating discrimination.

Zmuda's story tells us that there is nothing inevitable about progress--it is something we have to fight for.

In a time when LGBTQ people still face powerful and well-funded opposition to equality, where Democratic "allies" continue to stall and put LGBTQ issues on the back burner, where mainstream LGBT organization stubbornly persist with their narrow, "don't rock the boat strategy," where our victories remain tenuous and fragile--as the recent episode in Utah demonstrates--the bold, defiant and unapologetic character of Eastside Catholic High School students serves as a model to the LGBTQ movement for how to struggle and fight for the changes we urgently need and deserve.

First published at TheNation.com.

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