I think most Americans heartily applauded the recent Supreme Court ruling making equality in marriage rights for gay people the law of the land. I even used the Facebook app to make my profile picture rainbow-hued. (Although that does create the problem of how long it’s appropriate to leave it like that even if you really don’t like how it looks. I went with about a month.) The speed with which this change in attitude occurred was stunning, especially here in conservative DuPage County. It was a proud moment for those of us who have long seen equality in marriage a no-brainer.
Then came a couple of news stories which made me aware that even if the Supremes have seen the light (barely, the 5-4 decision wasn’t exactly a landslide), we still have much work to do before we can claim that discrimination based on sexual orientation is over. In Oregon (see this for details), the state’s 2014 teacher of the year was fired, filed a lawsuit, and then agreed to a $140,000 settlement to resign; and a teacher at a Catholic school near Philadelphia (more in this article) was fired, both due to their being gay. Just as Barak Obama’s being elected President twice has hardly eliminated racism, Obergefell v. Hodges is just one piece of the evolving legal rights that all minorities have had to fight to get in this country.
Unfortunately, despite this historic ruling, many states still do not have anti-discrimination laws which prevent employers from firing employees for their sexual orientation. This map shows that gays in twenty-eight states can have their employment terminated should their homosexuality be deemed an issue by their bosses. When you think about it, this is a much bigger problem than marriage equality. At least, Illinois is one of the more enlightened states in protecting the employment rights of both gays and trans-gendered individuals.
But so is Oregon, which did little to save its 2014 teacher of the year from losing his job. At least he was able to challenge his dismissal which led to the settlement, which was better than nothing. The offending school district, however, admitted no wrong as part of the deal, despite the ruling that there was evidence of “significant discrimination” in his treatment. Yet, had he worked in one of the states without Oregon’s anti-discrimination laws, he would have had no recourse whatsoever for what was ruled (sorta) his wrongful termination.
The Philadelphia case is even sadder in some ways. The woman involved had successfully worked at her school for many years before her orientation became controversial. She had been honest with her principal and colleagues from the start (apparently none of them ever had reason to question her morality in working at a Catholic school), but had not been “out” in any way to her students or the community. A single letter from one parent complained about her, and the diocese wasted no time in dumping her. And it clearly had nothing to do with her competence as the 23,000+ petition to save her employment shows—she was much beloved by the students and parents with whom she worked. Regardless, the Philadelphia Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput (who will serve as host to Pope Francis later this month), praised the firing as “showing character and common sense.” Apparently, when it comes to “What would Jesus do?” and gays, some believe He would cast them out as unfit to teach children. And organized religions wonder why they are losing membership?
Obviously, this is hardly unique to schools, but it seems much worse when it happens there, especially when you consider the hundreds of kids who attend these teachers’ schools. How many of them are struggling with their own sexual orientation? And statistics show their struggles are horrific in the number of times LGTB kids are bullied and their higher-than-average suicide rates. Of course, school officials and politicians will claim to value and respect all students equally, but how can the kids believe that when exceptional teachers who just happen to be gay are fired for that very characteristic? The message is very clear, “Your kind isn’t welcome to work here and we will cast those deviants from our midst should we become aware of them. Go, Bobcats!”
So before we get too smug about how much progress we have made on marriage rights and how enlightened we are, we should take a hard look at all the ways ignorance and bigotry are allowed to control some decisions. And in places as supposedly devoted to reason and tolerance as schools should be, we cannot escape the irony of two excellent teachers being forced out of the classrooms they loved due to the close-mindedness and prejudice that is still pervasive in our society. Hey, I’m thrilled about the ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, but that doesn’t mean the job is complete and the work is over. We all still have miles to go before we sleep.