COLUMBUS, Ohio — No one at the Catholic high school that fired Carla Hale in March claimed that she was anything less than a terrific physical education teacher and coach, devoted to the kids and adored by many of them.
No one accused her of bringing her personal life into the gym or onto the fields. By nature she’s private. And she loved her job too much to risk it that way.
But she lost it nonetheless, and the how is as flabbergasting as the why is infuriating.
Rather suddenly, her mother died, and an hour afterward, she and her brother numbly went through the paces of a standard obituary, listing survivors. Her brother included his wife. So Carla included her partner, Julie, whom her mother had known well and loved. Leaving Julie out would have been unthinkable, though Carla didn’t really think it through at the time. Her grief was still raw.
A parent of one of the school’s students spotted the obituary and wrote an anonymous letter to the school and to the Diocese of Columbus, saying that they couldn’t allow a woman like Carla to educate Catholic children.
So they don’t, not anymore. In a termination notice, the principal explained that Carla’s “spousal relationship violates the moral laws of the Catholic Church.” That was the sum of the stated grievance against her, and after more than 18 years at Bishop Watterson High School, Carla, 57, was done.
“The way it all came about was just so unfathomable,” she told me Sunday. “An obituary?”
I met her and Julie, 48, in their house outside Columbus, where the front lawn was neatly tended, the refrigerator was plastered with photos of relatives, the chocolate Lab dozed in his reserved spot on the sectional and Carla kept a box of tissues handy. Whenever she’s asked what her work meant to her, she cries.
“Every morning,” she said, “from the time you walked into the building, kids would be yelling down the hall, ‘Hey, Miss Hale, what are we going to do today?’ ‘Hey, Miss Hale, I remembered those shoes.’ It felt so comforting.”
She had a sense of belonging. Of purpose.
Even now, after nearly two months of exile from the school, she’s still on what she calls “bell time.” If the clock on her kitchen wall says 10:45 a.m., the voice in her head says, “Fourth period.”
There’s so much in the media, and in this column, about the progress of gay rights, especially on the marriage front. But in the republic of Georgia just days ago, Orthodox priests led thousands of people in an anti-gay attack. In Greenwich Village, a young gay man was fatally shot in what’s been deemed a hate crime.
And at a kitchen table here in central Ohio, a typically cheerful woman dabbed her eyes and wondered aloud what she’d done wrong.
The answer is in one sense simple: She made a life with another woman. While the Catholic Church doesn’t condemn homosexuality per se, it considers any physical expression of it sinful.
And Carla’s “public declaration of an extramarital relationship,” meaning the obituary, indicated that she was flouting Catholic tenets and thus breaching her contract, according to a statement the diocese emailed me.
But things get complicated when you consider the selectiveness of the church’s outrage, the capriciousness of its mercy.
Until public exposure shamed them, many church leaders protected priests whose sexual transgressions involved minors and were criminal.
Church leaders tolerate teachers at Catholic schools who are married with no kids or with few. Some are surely using artificial birth control, which the church officially opposes.
Besides which, Carla was guiding students through sit-ups, not psalms. The school hired her though she’s Methodist, not Catholic.
She was then married to a man, but they split and, more than a decade ago, she became involved with Julie.
Perhaps six colleagues met Julie over the years, though they probably weren’t the only ones aware of Carla’s sexual orientation.
“I’m sure it was surmised: gym teacher, divorced, short hair, didn’t have a bow in it,” Carla said. “Come on.”
There was no discussion or upset, not until the anonymous letter.
Neither the federal government nor Ohio outlaws employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Columbus does, though whether it can be applied to religious groups is uncertain. Carla’s lawyer, Thomas Tootle, has filed a complaint with the city anyway.
It’s been a big story here, with thousands of people publicly expressing support for her. She’s moved but mortified. She didn’t seek and doesn’t enjoy the media attention.
“A lot of people want me to be bitter and go after the Catholic Church,” she said, adding that others want to cast her as a lesbian heroine.
She just wants her job back, a recognition, she said, “that I’m a moral individual who happens to be gay.”
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.
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