The Depressing Reality of the Heartwarming Story of a Washington School Sit-In

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 20 2013 2:19 PM

Not Even ENDA Could Have Stopped that Vice Principal From Losing His Job For Being Gay

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Protestors hold signs and greet participants to a rally to affirm traditional marriage between a man and a woman on May 1, 2004 at Safeco Field in Seattle

File photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

More than 300 students at a Catholic high school in suburban Seattle staged a cafeteria sit-in on Thursday to protest the forced resignation of a popular vice principal who was ousted for marrying another man this past summer. That student-organized display of acceptance—complete with at least one giant rainbow banner of thanks—quickly spread to other nearby schools with the help of social media, and seems primed to become the latest skirmish in our current culture wars.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

The story is sure to provoke strong emotions on both sides of the debate, but perhaps more importantly serves as a reminder that even if Congress were to pass ENDA (of which there is no guarantee), the civil rights legislation in its current form would make no difference in cases like this one.

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While same-sex marriage is legal in the state of Washington, teachers at the Archdiocese of Seattle-run school in question, Eastside Catholic High School, sign a contract promising to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church as a condition of their employment. And so once school officials learned that Mike Zmuda had married his partner this past summer they were within their legal right to force him out the door. "He understood he could no longer be employed there because of his current circumstances," school spokesman Mike Patterson told the Seattle Times, adding that Zmuda was an an "exemplary" administrator. Another school official, meanwhile, stressed that Zmuda's ouster was "a church decision" not a school one.

The Senate passed ENDA (or for the acronym-adverse, the the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) last month, sending it on to the GOP-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner has shown no interest in taking it up. But even if he did, the landmark bill as currently written—and there's no reason to think that House Republicans would look to strengthen it—includes a rather giant religious exemption that would mean Catholic schools and other religious institutions would not be prevented from firing or refusing to hire someone based on their actual or perceived sexuality. Put more simply, ENDA would prevent Zmuda from being fired from a public school, but not a Catholic one like Eastside.

Zmuda, meanwhile, used Thursday's protest as an opportunity to officially come out to his former students and to wish them well in the future. "I hope that no matter what happens to me and to the school, that all of you guys will seek a career and work very hard, find the love of your life, hopefully one day get married as well," he told them. "At the same time, no matter what happens, strive do do your best."

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