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Christian School Settles After Firing Gay Coach

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jul 21, 2010
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A Christian school in New Zealand has reached a settlement with a girls’ athletics coach who was fired from his job with the school for being gay.

The unnamed man, 28, was hired by Middleton Grange School as a coach for the girls’ "netball" team. Netball is a sport similar to basketball. The coach had just selected the team for the year when he was terminated abruptly; according to a July 21 article in New Zealand newspaper the Christchurch Star, the school fired the coach because of the Christian belief that gays are "sinful" due to their sexual orientation.

The school’s Board of Trustees were ordered to attend a course in human rights awareness, and the man was awarded an undisclosed sum in damages.

"It’s hard enough to go through finding yourself and accepting yourself and being ’out’ in the first place," the coach, who has gone on to secure a position at another school, told the press. "Having to go through discrimination doesn’t help." Speaking to his firing, the young coach added, "At first I was shocked. I’ve never felt so small in my life... I started to kind of blame myself." Added the coach, "I am glad it won’t happen to anyone again at that school. It was definitely a hard thing to go through."

"We’re thinking of the impact on him," said the school’s principal, Richard Vanderpyl, who went on to add, "We get on very well, very amicably. We care for him and respect him."

"We’re very surprised at this kind of action has been taken in this day and age," said New Zealand AIDS Foundation spokesperson Dawn O’Connor. "New Zealand and Christchurch is no place for homophobia, and schools should be a place that support each individual in a safe social environment and where homophobia will be unacceptable."

"He was teaching a schoolgirls’ team," noted a friend of the young man’s, adding, "he’s gay, what interest is he going to have in girls?"

In the United States, a spate of allegations has emerged having to do with coaches reportedly engaging in sexual conduct with their underage students. In one recent case from earlier this month, a female Illinois high school gym teacher was arrested and charged with eight felony counts for alleged sexual contact with a teenage girl who was her student.

Earlier this year, similar charges were filed against a 37-year-old athletic instructor at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. The instructor allegedly had sexual contact with a 14-year-old student, who spoke of "sexy sessions" with her teacher. Poly Prep Country Day School was also the site of an earlier scandal involving two female language instructors, who were reportedly discovered last November engaged in sexual activity in an empty classroom, while an event attended by the school’s students was taking place elsewhere in the building.

Fantasies about female instructors are part and parcel of the cultural landscape, from teen sex comedies such as Porky’s to erotic literature (one novel bears the title Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher).

But in real life, gay and lesbian instructors can find it tough to stay employed even when they remain completely professional in their interactions with students, especially at religious schools. Last spring, a Canadian music teacher found herself out of a job after her same-sex spouse delivered a child and the news spread to the school where she worked.

The school in question, Little Flower Academy, did not allow for parental leave, but did allow Lisa Reimer to take two weeks of personal time following the birth of Reimer’s son. Reimer alleged that when word began to spread of the birth--and the fact that it was Reimer’s same-sex spouse who had borne the child--the parents of some of the school’s children became uneasy, leading to Reimer being barred from teaching in the classroom--though she was instructed to provide music lessons to her young pupils online.

"I have been instructed that all the classes are cancelled and I’m not to come into the school at all or have any direct contact with the students," said Reimer, "but I am to provide all the classes, through Grade 8 to 12, an online written assignment." Continued Reimer, "You wouldn’t give a written assignment in a performing arts class to make up an entire term."

GLBT equality advocate group Pride Education Network claimed in an April 28 press release that the principal of the Little Flower Academy had informed Reimer that parents of some of the students were worried "the girls might follow Ms. Reimer’s lead." One member of the group, Steve LeBel, used to be a teacher; he said that the school’s pupils were being given the message that, "our principal thinks it’s fine to let someone go because they’re a lesbian."

Instructors at Catholic schools are often contractually required to abide by church teachings. Instructors who are not Catholic, as is the case with Reimer, are required to treat the church’s doctrines with respect. So-called "Catholicity clauses" stem from a 1984 court case, Caldwell vs. St. Thomas Aquinas, in which a teacher was fired from a Catholic high school after she married a divorced man. Catholicity clauses could also be used to uphold anti-gay firings.

The Canadian Supreme Court upheld that legal principle in a 2001 case that challenged Trinity Western University, a religious school, for its mandate that students avoid same-sex intimacy along with other "biblically condemned" behavior.

Vancouver labor lawyer Geoffrey Howard noted that if Reimer wished to pursue the matter, she might have grounds to challenge the "Catholicity" clause in her contract because Little Flower Academy, while a private religious school, receives government funding. "I think that it is time to revisit Caldwell," Howard told the Vancouver Sun. "I think this case is very significant. Just see how many societal issues are raised here. Sexual orientation is just a small part of this. Look at the issue of family rights, of parental rights, of other rights."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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