Bowing to pressure from critics who didn't like controversial language put into teacher contracts, the Oakland Diocese Bishop said he would work on clarifying language in a "morality clause" teachers have to sign if they want to keep their jobs.
The decision came late Tuesday, and while some are cautiously optimistic, others are wary that the bishop's amended contract - yet to be written - will assuage their fears about what the bishop intends them to sign regarding how they conduct themselves in their private lives.
Bishop Michael Barber has been faced over the last several months with a vocal outcry from critics of the annual teacher contract, who started to protest in earnest with rallies, websites and letter writing campaigns to say they find the provisions "unacceptable."
As of Tuesday afternoon, a Change.org petition had 500 signatures from people angry that three teachers at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland won't be allowed to return in the fall because they refused to sign the contract. The new language addresses the teachers' personal lives, and has caused a stir among openly gay and non-Catholic teachers, who could potentially violate their contracts.
"It is distressing to see the impact the words of this contract amendment have had on our school's community," Bishop O'Dowd parent Christina McKenna wrote on the petition. "It's a giant step backward, especially as we strive to teach our children inclusion, tolerance, and respect."
Mike Brown, a spokesman for the diocese, insisted that the bishop is "not targeting gays."
Instead, Brown said, the morality clause was written to remind teachers that they are role models both in and out of the classroom. Barber said Tuesday that he will add "clarifying language" to the contract for future years, because the 2014-15 contract is "completed."
It's not clear what that language will consist of. The bishop will meet at another Catholic school, De La Salle, next week to talk with teachers there, Brown said.
"Morality clauses" have been cropping up across the country, including in Cincinnati, where the New York Times reported that critics of the new Archdiocese rules there have put up billboards this spring asking, "Would Pope Francis Sign the New Catholic Teacher Contract?" The contract there specifically bans "public support of positions contrary to Roman Catholic teaching" that include same-sex marriage unions, assisted suicide, abortions, as a few examples.
“This is happening now because you now have employees whose lives and marriages are public,” Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and a visiting scholar at Santa Clara University told NBC Bay Area. “People see same-sex wedding announcements in the paper now, when before it was, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’’’
Some bishops are responding to this behavior, Reese said, by “arguing that these people are not observing Catholic teachings and therefore shouldn’t be working for us.”
“I don’t think their argument holds water,” Reese added. “If they were consistent, they’d fire anyone who got divorced and remarried, or who lived together.”
In Oakland, the contract clause doesn't specifically refer to homosexuality.
But it does call for teachers in its "duties" section "to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and moral...and to do nothing that tends to bring discredit to the school or to the Diocese of Oakland."
The new language to the annual contract was added on March 15 by the Oakland bishop, who added a new section on "philosophy," meaning teachers have to perform "all responsibilities" with an overarching commitment to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, reported by the East Bay Express.
Three teachers, including Kathleen Purcell, an attorney who is also the career partnerships program director at Bishop O'Dowd, have chosen not to sign the new contracts, and thus, won't be hired back. There are 1,200 teachers throughout the Oakland Diocese. Despite the small number of teachers, many say the others ended up signing because they simply need to keep their jobs.