Mark Zmuda announced he is suing Eastside Catholic school and the Seattle Archdioceses for wrongful termination after he legally married his male partner. The case stems from his employment as vice-principal to the school was satisfactory for years and that after he announced he had married his male partner, he was given an ultimatum to divorce his spouse or his employment with the school would be terminated. Mark refused to divorce and was fired.
Employment Attorney, Jeffrey Needle, stated the case is likely to go to the appellate courts and potential the state supreme court for its precedent setting nature. The church counters Mark’s claim, proffering its status as a religious organization which holds tenets that bar gay marriage. However, a recent state supreme court decision might prove difficult for the church to support that position.
Mark believes a central argument for his case is that he did not serve in a religious role in the school and that his position was administrative, that is his employment as Eastside Catholic’s vice-principal and not one of a clergy member or one tasked with imparting religious teachings onto the students. As such he is subject to the statutory employment protections as codified in Chapter 49.60 of the Revised Code of Washington which is also known as the Washington’s Law Against Discrimination.
A recent February ruling by the Washington Supreme court may give Mark a stronger position. In Ockletree v. Franciscan Health System the court ruled the definition of Employer was not constitutionally protected for the purpose of exemption from the WLAD in its prohibition from discrimination in the workplace when coupled with the employee’s claim that the religious, non-profit organization discriminated against him for reasons wholly unrelated to any religious purpose, practice or activity. Since Larry Ockletree was employed as a security guard, the position was not subject to religious exemption from employee labor rights.
The effect of this ruling meant that Eastside Catholic could be subject to respecting these rights upon showing Mark was in an employment capacity similar to Larry’s.
In a motion to dismiss, Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese (also a defendant in Larry’s lawsuit) defines Larry’s role a religious one that required him to “serve the legitimate Roman Catholic religious value of providing a suitable Catholic education for children.”
Jeffrey countered, stating “Let’s say there was a nun and she decided she wanted to become a priest. That would be gender discrimination in the real world,” he said. “But because they have a 1st Amendment right of religion, both of establishment and free exercise, the nun can’t sue the church.”
In Zmuda’s case, however, his role as vice principal is not so clear, despite his employer’s religious affiliation.
Mark states Eastside Catholic warranted that it does not discriminate and hence he relied on this promise if he chose employment there and that he would not have applied for the job had it mentioned discrimination against gay marriage stating the school’s website
“did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sexual orientation. “If I had read the school’s website and it had said, ‘We do not hire gay men or gay men who marry,’ I would have never taken the job at Eastside Catholic,” He also said the employee handbook indicated the school did not discriminate.
Mark’s attorney Richard Friedman went a step further, stating ““The heart of the case is really just a standard employment case. You can’t represent something to a potential employee, have them rely upon it, and then take it back. This happened to be a particular representation, ‘We won’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status,” Richard said. “The law is very clear that representations by an employer to an employee is enforceable if the employee relies upon them.”
Friedman would not specify what kind of resolution Zmuda is seeking, but said it’s unlikely Zmuda would return to Eastside Catholic.
“There’s real concern that his career has been ruined. He’s going to have to report he was fired any time he applies for a job now,” Richard said. “The hope is that, in one way or another, he’ll be able to get back to being in school administration, which is what he wants to do.”
Zmuda said he has been comforted by students, parents, teachers and alumni who have called on the school to reinstate him.
By Darren Smith
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