Alter students support ousted gay teacher, call him ‘disciple of God’

Alter High School students gather in their cars at Ernst Park near the school Friday May 1, in support of ousted teacher Jim Zimmerman. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF
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Alter High School students gather in their cars at Ernst Park near the school Friday May 1, in support of ousted teacher Jim Zimmerman. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Dozens of Alter High School students gathered at a park next to the school Friday to support English teacher Jim Zimmerman, who is being forced out of the Catholic school after 23 years.

Zimmerman is gay, and someone sent a copy of his marriage certificate to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which oversees the school and opposes same-sex marriage. Alter Principal Lourdes Lambert said officials at the archdiocese made the decision not to renew Zimmerman’s contract for 2020-21.

FIRST STORY: Gay Alter HS teacher forced out by church

The students mainly stayed at their cars Friday for social-distancing reasons and listened to a set of songs they said were among Zimmerman’s favorites.

Several students said Zimmerman is more than just a good English teacher. Henry Blair said Zimmerman cared about every student and made sure they had fun while learning. Michael Ferguson called him “an amazing guy,” and Molly Goheen said students were able to speak their minds in his class.

“He teaches us very important lessons, not just about literature or English but about being a good person, how to stand up for yourself, how to think creatively,” said Alter student Meredith Russ. “I think Mr. Zimmerman exemplifies everything it means to be a teacher and to be a disciple of God.”

Zimmerman, an Alter graduate who has taught at the school for 23 years, is one of about 3% of teachers in the nation to achieve National Board Certification, in his case in the area of English language arts.

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To do so, teachers must meet a rigorous set of qualifications set by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Catholic teacher contracts in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati list same-sex sexual activity — among several other things — as being in contradiction with Catholic doctrine, and possible grounds for termination.

Zimmerman has declined to comment about the issue.

Jennifer Schack, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese, said earlier this week that the church “values all of our teachers,” but she would comment only generally about personnel matters.

“Our Catholic schools expect teachers and staff to be witnesses to the teaching of the Catholic Church in both word and deed. Public witness is a critical part of Catholic education,” Schack said. “These expectations are clearly articulated in our teacher-minister contracts.”

Schack provided the Catholic Church’s official catechism, or teaching, which calls homosexual acts “acts of grave depravity,” and says “under no circumstances can they be approved.”

By Friday afternoon, Ferguson’s change.org petition to “fight for Mr. Zimmerman’s right to teach” had drawn more than 17,000 signatures in four days. Ferguson said he hopes the archdiocese will make a change in its policy.

Many social media comments continued to support Zimmerman, arguing the Catholic Church should adjust its “narrow-mindedness” and think of gay students who already are struggling to find acceptance.

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Others disagreed, calling Zimmerman’s ouster a “courageous move” by the church, saying it was Zimmerman’s fault for breaching his contract, and thanked the archdiocese for not “bowing to the mob.”

But the students who demonstrated were upset about the move Friday.

Blair said he doesn’t think Zimmerman should lose his job based on “who he decides to love.” Russ, who called Zimmerman an inspiration, added he never said anything negative about the church to students.

Goheen said she asked Zimmerman to write her main college letter of recommendation, saying she really valued his opinion, from the days of taking his freshman honors English class to her current senior year Advanced Placement class.

“He’s super intelligent, but he makes us think for ourselves — he gives us space to have our own opinions and voices,” Goheen said. “He’s one of the best teachers at Alter.”