A Catholic School Stands Its Ground

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There have been plenty of examples of our secular culture’s antagonism toward Catholic education: from the Covington School-Nick Sandmann debacle, to activism against the admissions policies of Kansas City’s Catholic schools, and to numerous lawsuits by employees fired from Catholic schools for moral indiscretions.

The greatest danger in these situations is not the secularist’s desire to be rid of authentic Catholic schools—the Church has, after all, survived great repressions and persecutions across the ages—but the possibility that poorly formed educators will readily compromise the formation of young Catholics, rather than risk public ridicule and marginalization.

Not so at The Lyceum, a private Catholic high school in South Euclid, Ohio. Faced with a fierce political and legal battle to preserve its consistent Catholic morality and worldview, the Lyceum is showing American Catholics what it means to stand and fight.

And in this case, Catholic education might just win.

 

High Stakes
The Lyceum is proud of its strong Catholic identity and has been recognized by The Cardinal Newman Society on its Catholic Education Honor Roll. Before their legal troubles began, the school was perhaps best known for its Schola Cantorum, which has sung at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

Now the small school of just 53 students is standing up to an overreaching city council that demands the school stop modeling the Catholic understanding of the human person and human sexuality. That is unacceptable to these faithful educators.

Recently, the school, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) lawyer Christiana Holcomb, filed documents suing the City of South Euclid for declaratory and injunctive relief and damages stemming from a local ordinance. The nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected classifications, with penalties including fines, restitution, and imprisonment doled out by a newly constituted civil rights review board.

The stakes are high. If the school fails to receive declaratory and injunctive relief as a religious educational institution, then its employment and admissions policies, based on deeply-held religious beliefs about sexuality and marriage, would be illegal. That could set a precedent for subsequent action against other Catholic schools choosing to hire only employees and admit only students with parents who believe in the mission of Catholic education and the sexual and moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

The Lyceum has seven full-time and two part-time tutors, all of whom it insists “must be committed to the Catholic identity and mission of the Lyceum.” Should the headmaster hire someone who teaches or witnesses contrary to Church teaching, the school would lose its lease with the local Catholic parish. The lease reads in part:

Lessee shall not use, or permit the Premises to be used, in any manner that is contradictory to the teachings or mission of the Roman Catholic Church, that promotes the espousal of any particular belief or viewpoint that is contradictory to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as determined by the Bishop of Cleveland, or that is otherwise injurious to the reputation of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, the Diocese of Cleveland, or the Bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland.

Headmaster Luke Macik, himself a lawyer, followed the progress of this ordinance closely and spoke out against its passage. Seeking an answer as to whether the ordinance applied to the school’s faith-based policy and practices, the Lyceum twice petitioned the City. After not receiving an answer for almost a year, the school proactively filed for a determination rather than wait for an activist to bring a discrimination lawsuit against it.

One hopeful development: educational institutions were scratched out of the ordinance before final passage. But it’s possible that the school could be vulnerable under the law’s business and public accommodations categories (552.04). These make it unlawful to discriminate for any reason or face a third-degree misdemeanor penalty of up to $500 in fines, restitution, or up to 60 days in jail. (See Ohio Rev. Code Ann. Sec 2929.28(A) and Sec. 2929.24(A)(3).) Since a faithful Catholic school would surely face compliance issues, The Lyceum may ultimately have no alternative but to close.

Another ray of hope is the ordinance’s religious exemption, which allows religious institutions to give preference in hiring to candidates “of a particular religion to perform work connected with the performance of religious activities by the institution” (#552.06 (e)). But that would narrowly apply only to Catholics and to Catholic “religious activities,” which can be interpreted narrowly. Does it pertain to lay people who teach the faith—even those who integrate Catholic teaching into standard subjects—as well as ordained priests, sisters, and deacons? What about support staff who are expected to model and witness to the faith of the Church?

The exemption also seems to be limited to hiring decisions, but it makes no mention of other personnel issues covered by the ordinance, including “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, including promotion.”

Threat to Catholic Mission
The Catholic Church is quite clear in its teaching about the biological determination of sex at birth (Catechism, 369-373; Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World, 8) and sexual activity confined to the Sacrament of Marriage between a man and a woman (Catechism, 2360). The Church also requires her schools, acknowledging a teacher’s critical impact and importance, to hire only those who can be a strong witness to the faith. She tells her schools:

[We] must remember that teachers and educators fulfill a specific Christian vocation and share an equally specific participation in the mission of the Church, to the extent that ‘it depends chiefly on them whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose.’ (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 19)

Also from the U.S. bishops:

“Catholic school personnel should be grounded in a faith-based Catholic culture, have strong bonds to Christ and the Church, and be witnesses to the faith in both their words and actions.” (Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, 272)

When teachers, staff members, and even students overtly act out sexual behavior contrary to Church teaching—such as being openly engaged in same-sex activities, witnessing to an unchaste lifestyle, or manifesting the disfunction of gender dysphoria—it harms the mission integrity of the school. All individuals within a Catholic school community have a responsibility to each other and to the Church to avoid public scandal and to support the faith-based mission of the school.

Families who apply or candidates who seek employment at a Catholic school should be well aware of the Church’s teachings in this regard. They are no secret, and a faithful Catholic school should be clear about its expectations. The act of applying raises questions about the true intentions for doing so—in this day and age, intentions cannot go unquestioned by school leaders.

There are forces at work to silence traditional morality and religious belief; in South Euclid, it was an advocacy group called Equality Ohio that initiated the ordinance in 2017, despite no overt or disturbing issues of discrimination in the city. The group’s primary agenda is to push for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in nondiscrimination laws, making Catholic educators and others with traditional views on marriage potential targets of discrimination lawsuits.

But The Lyceum is not running scared. Macik says:

We hope to be able to continue to educate Lyceum students and operate our institution here in South Euclid in faithful adherence to the teachings of the Catholic faith and right reason, as we have been doing since 2003. More broadly we hope that freedom of religion, the very first right in the Bill of Rights, will continue to be respected by all government institutions and public servants.

Given recent state and federal efforts to change nondiscrimination laws, all Catholic schools could soon face similar challenges. Macik recognizes this and the potential impact of The Lyceum’s fight:

Religious schools must be free to operate consistently with their faith without fear of unjust government punishment. A good outcome for The Lyceum will help protect the freedom of other faith-based schools to abide by their religious convictions as well.

Catholic educators nationwide, however, would do well not to rely too heavily on the legal precedent that The Lyceum could achieve. More important is following the example of this small Catholic school, which consistently upholds Catholic teaching and refuses to compromise under pressure from activists and government authorities.

That’s the fortitude that will be needed to sustain the renewal of faithful Catholic education. Let us pray that God continues to give Catholic educators the graces they need.

(Photo credit: Alliance Defending Freedom)

Denise Donohue

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Denise Donohue, Ed.D., directs The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll, which celebrates faithful Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

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