OEDEL: Mount de Sales at a crossroads of conscience

June 1, 2014 

An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to a different Charles Jones. It has been edited.

Mount de Sales, Macon’s high school under some guidance by the Sisters of Mercy, a national Catholic women’s organization, is at a crossroads of conscience.

School officials knew Flint Dollar, the band director since 2010, was gay and in a committed relationship. Dollar announced in October that he planned to marry his partner this summer in Minnesota.

Dollar signed a contract May 1 to return to the school in the fall. However, that contract was later disavowed by school President David Held, with support from most of the board of trustees, chaired by Charles E. Jones, a local attorney. The board defended the decision to fire Dollar, whom they called “a valuable member of our faculty,” in order “to preserve the mission started by the Sisters of Mercy” by providing “a high quality education based in teachings of the Catholic Church,” including disapproval of same-sex marriage.

Pope Francis asked last July, “Who am I to judge” gays? Still, neither he nor the Sisters of Mercy endorse same-sex marriage. Mount de Sales, however, in its various policy statements and in its particular dealings with Dollar and others, has shown more comfort with its students and teachers personally acknowledging and displaying nontraditional sexual orientations and unsanctioned marital choices, like divorce and remarriage.

In its employee handbook and website, the school articulates policies of nondiscrimination as to “sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” “marital status” and “any other characteristic or status that is protected by federal, state, or local law.”

Federal law protects the right to travel to other states and avail oneself of the benefits of other states’ laws, so the school apparently accepts Dollar’s right to go to Minnesota, join in a same-sex marriage, and have that marriage honored by federal law. Georgia doesn’t legally have to respect such a marriage, and neither did Mount de Sales -- until the school adopted its nondiscrimination policy and made promises to Dollar.

There’s little ambiguity about Roman Catholic teachings on promise-keeping. The church endorses keeping promises, such as those between church-married partners and, presumably, promises Mount de Sales apparently made to Dollar to hire and retain Dollar despite his sexual orientation, committed relationship and marriage plans.

It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Dollar to take the school at its word because the school is known in Macon as a path-breaking institution. Mount de Sales was the first school here publicly to educate those of various faiths, first to integrate and first to embrace such a wide-open nondiscrimination policy. From some national press, though, you’d think the school is a regressive horror-chamber.

Mount de Sales risks having to defend itself against a lawsuit for breaking its promises. Though the school may counter that Dollar publicly flaunted his same-sex engagement, Mount de Sales is probably liable contractually, even if not for big money because Dollar’s contract was year-to-year. More importantly, the school risks losing something else of value -- promissory integrity.

True, marriage is a sacrament Catholicism reserves for marriage’s traditional meaning. That’s wise and appropriate according to many, including some who support same-sex civil unions.

But Dollar didn’t ask Father Allan McDonald of Macon’s largest Catholic parish to extend that sacrament beyond the church’s sense of propriety. Nor did Dollar ask Mount de Sales to endorse Dollar’s personal commitment to his partner. Dollar just wanted to keep teaching.

Some Maconites have apparently tried to get Dollar fired and persuade the school to break its commitments. That could be tortuous -- interference with contractual relations. Anyone interfering with Dollar’s contract may be sued.

Perhaps some people have decided that punishing Dollar and reinforcing Roman Catholic Church teachings about what constitutes sacrilege is more important than honoring local employment contracts.

Targeting some sinners and not others, though, is risky business. Why are divorced and remarried teachers retained by Mount de Sales? Why has the church elsewhere retained pederast priests?

One wonders what St. Francis de Sales, for whom the school is named, would think. Francis famously advocated charity over penance. Where is Christ’s charity in firing Dollar now? Why should Mount de Sales effectively demand that Dollar repent when others on the school’s faculty, who also intentionally choose to sin according to Catholic orthodoxy, are retained?

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School.

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