The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s decision to force out Alter High School teacher Jim Zimmerman has re-ignited local debate about how America’s largest church denomination treats gay people.
According to annual studies from the Pew Research Center, Catholic adults’ approval of same-sex marriage nationwide has grown from 36% in 2004 to 61% in 2019, nearly matching the results for the nation as a whole.
But the church is standing firm, as its teaching says marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and calls homosexual acts “acts of grave depravity.”
Zimmerman has been an English teacher at Alter High School for 23 years, but his contract was not renewed for 2020-21 after someone mailed a copy of his marriage certificate to the archdiocese. Zimmerman was married in 2016 to a same-sex partner. His departure from the school has led to an online campaign to change church policy, as well as protests by some students.
Zimmerman told the Dayton Daily News last week that after news of his firing, he made a detailed proposal to the Archdiocese, suggesting creation of a new group to study how the Catholic church treats gay employees. But Zimmerman said the Archdiocese rejected that proposal last week, and he said he’s considering legal action, not for money or to get his job back, but to trigger changes in Catholic policy.
“The goal of this letter was to find a way that LGBTQ teachers can serve openly and serve the needs of LGBTQ students at Catholic schools,” Zimmerman said. “I’d rather do a win-win, where we can say we’re all working together on this, and we have a common goal of providing the best education and support for our students.”
FIRST STORY: Gay Alter HS teacher forced out by church
The teacher-minister contract that local Catholic teachers sign includes “same-sex sexual activity” among a list of behaviors that allow for termination. After someone sent in a copy of his marriage certificate, school officials told Zimmerman, who has taught at Alter for 23 years, that the Archdiocese will not renew his contract for 2020-21.
Several individuals and groups, including Alter families, have written to the Archdiocese in recent weeks, urging them to reconsider their approach in the wake of Zimmerman’s removal.
The Archdiocese did not respond to the Dayton Daily News’ questions about the specifics of Zimmerman’s proposal.
“We do not comment on ongoing personnel matters,” spokeswoman Jennifer Schack said. “The Archdiocese has no interest in compromising the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, which leads to freedom from sin and the fullness of life in God.”
Zimmerman’s 20-page proposal suggested an eight-member group (four chosen by the Archdiocese and four by the LGBTQ community), meeting at least monthly to discuss how each side’s goals “could be mutually met.”
Zimmerman said in the past month, he reached out to a few recent Alter grads for help in researching those issues, and the effort grew rapidly as 18 graduates volunteered their help.
The proposal presents four research questions — about existing gay-friendly Catholic groups, about Pope Francis’ statements on this issue, about whether church policy pushes away young people, and about past nonconformists who changed the church — with links to existing research on each topic.
Zimmerman said at the beginning of the document that if the Archdiocese “agrees to make a good-faith effort” to examine the issue, he will not sue over his non-renewal as a teacher. But he said Archdiocesan officials declined his proposal in a May 7 phone call, saying that only the Pope could change the policy on gays.
Zimmerman, an Alter grad, said when he first started teaching at Alter, he was still coming to terms with his sexuality. In the years since, he said he’s never told a class he was gay or married, “but as we have discussions, young people are pretty sharp.”
“I began to see a need for the LGBTQ students to be supported,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve gotten testimonials from young men and women who have gone through and are going through Catholic school and what it means to have someone from the LGTBQ community support them. … There have been a handful of students throughout my career who have come out to me (as gay), and we’ve gotten them resources and helped them along.”
Zimmerman, who teaches English classes, is one of the 3% of teachers nationally who reached National Board Certified Teacher status.
Growing public debate
Last week, a group of Alter graduates launched a website called cuttheclause.com, urging the Archdiocese to remove the Catholic conduct clause from its teacher-minister contracts and to open its arms to gay Catholics and others.
The Cut the Clause group argues that different provisions in the contract are not equally enforceable — a gay marriage certificate is available as public record, while other behaviors are less provable. They also say firing someone based on that clause is inconsistent with Jesus Christ’s teaching on social justice and acceptance.
The Archdiocese disagrees. In response to Dayton Daily News questions about the Zimmerman issue, they cited a Gospel passage where Jesus is quoted as saying a follower “must deny himself (and) take up his cross,” arguing that the cross in question could be an attraction to someone who is not their spouse, or same-sex activity, or an addict’s draw to drugs or alcohol.
“The enduring teaching of the Catholic Church, based on the revealed Word of God, has always taught that marriage is between a man and a woman …” Schack said. “Abstinence from sexual relations outside of a valid marriage, which can only be between a man and a woman, applies equally to all people without bias.”
Some have argued that having different marriage rules for gays is the definition of bias.
Matt Deters, a former Alter teacher, said he left that job in protest in 2014 when the Archdiocese began requiring teachers to agree to the conduct clause. He said the decision on Zimmerman could make LGBTQ students wonder if the Church will reject them one day, too, “when they follow their hearts and accept who they are.”
“The Church must own how it contributes to the structures that perpetuate hate,” Deters wrote in a letter to Schnurr. “Forces of hatred are always seeking legitimacy and justification. When the Church’s catechism says that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” or the Church fires a teacher for being in a private same-sex marriage, the Church actively contributes to and fortifies hate and homophobia.”
This is the second recent high-profile case involving a gay Catholic teacher in the Midwest.
Brebuf Jesuit High School in Indianapolis refused to fire a teacher for a same-sex marriage last year, leading to a showdown between the Archdiocese and the school. The Archdiocese said the school could no longer call itself Catholic or celebrate Mass. But the Vatican suspended those penalties pending further review, which is still ongoing.
Student and online response
Molly Goheen, a current Alter senior, produced a 20-minute video featuring about 50 current and former Alter students expressing their support for Zimmerman.
The students thank Zimmerman for making them better writers, calling them out on bad behavior when they needed it, inspiring them to believe in themselves, and writing college recommendation letters to help them on their next steps. One student told Zimmerman he “stood for everything Alter believes in.”
“We believe in Jesus and we love Jesus, but we don’t necessarily love all Catholic teachings because there’s a lot of differences there,” Goheen said at a student rally for Zimmerman. “We wanted to make a statement that in general, what happened was wrong.”
Zimmerman said he is extremely grateful to people who have shown him support in many ways. Cut the Clause’ petition to change church policy has more than 1,000 signatures. A student’s separate change.org petition to “fight for Mr. Zimmerman’s right to teach” has garnered more than 32,000 signatures.
But others disagreed on social media, calling Zimmerman’s ouster a “courageous move” by the church, saying it was Zimmerman’s fault for breaching his contract, and thanking the Archdiocese for not “bowing to the mob.”
Archdiocesan officials said in Zimmerman’s case, if a signed, mutually agreed-on contract is not to be honored, then all contracts become worthless.
Zimmerman said when he was first told April 9 that his contract would not be renewed, a part of him was ready to fight.
“My first reaction was a little bit of disbelief,” Zimmerman said. “I was like, OK, bring it. You want to do this? Bring it.”
Zimmerman said he thinks the Catholic Church will change some day.
“I understand this effort is a long-term journey. If my situation moves us forward a step, then that’s a success,” Zimmerman said. “I really honestly believe that eventually the Catholic church will come to see that gay people are not fundamentally broken and that we’re just like everybody else, and they’ll (OK) gay marriage. Now whether that takes 20 years or 100 years, I don’t know.”
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