Metro Weekly

Judge: Catholic school discriminated against gay cafeteria worker

Religious exemption in Bay State's nondiscrimination law does not apply to Fontbonne Academy

Fontbonne Academy (Photo: Fontbonne Academy).

Fontbonne Academy (Photo: Fontbonne Academy).

A Massachusetts superior court judge on Wednesday ruled in a first-of-its-kind decision that a Catholic all-girls school in Milton, Mass., illegally discriminated against a gay cafeteria worker when school officials fired him after learning he was married to another man.

Matthew Barrett, of Dorchester, had argued that Fontbonne Academy had engaged in sex discrimination when it rescinded its job offer after discovering details about his personal life. Barrett had previously been offered and accepted the position of food services director at the school, a position that did not put him in the classroom or leave him with the ability to influence school curriculum. But Fontbonne insisted it had a right to fire Barrett, citing the Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, as well as an exemption within Massachusetts’ LGBT nondiscrimination law for religiously-affiliated institutions. 

But Norfolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins rejected that argument, ruling that the exemption within the nondiscrimination law does not apply, because Fontbonne accepts non-Catholic students and employees, regardless of their faith. According to Wilkins, the religious exemption only applies to organizations that limit membership or admission to members of a certain religion.

Additionally, Wilkins ruled that the First Amendment’s protections for religious expression did not apply to the case, as hiring a food service worker who happened to be married to a same-sex spouse would not interfere with Fontbonne’s ability to express its opposition to same-sex marriages.

“[Fontbonne’s] mission is to provide an education to young women rooted in gospel values and the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Wilkins wrote in his opinion. “It encourages debate, including on issues of same-sex marriage, and does not prohibit students from exploring and even advocating ideas and positions contrary to church teachings. Barrett was hired as a Food Service Director, whose job duties do not include ‘formally presenting the gospel values or the … teachings of the Catholic Church.’ He was not denied employment for any advocacy of same-sex marriage or gay rights; he only listed his husband as an emergency contact on his ‘new hire’ form. Nothing on that form suggested that Barrett claimed his marriage to have sacramental or other religious significance or that it was anything but a civil marriage relationship. Fontbonne presents no evidence of advocacy by Barrett.”

“Religiously-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” Bennett Klein, a senior attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which is representing Barrett, said in a statement. “When Fontbonne fired Matt from a job that has nothing to do with religion, and simply because he is married, they came down on the wrong side of the law.”

Klein told The Patriot Ledger that he expects the school to appeal the decision. A spokeswoman for the school told the Ledger that school officials “have received the court’s decision in this matter and are considering our options.”

If the school decides not to appeal, the two sides must determine whether there will be a trial to determine the amount in damages that Fontbonne would owe to Barrett, who has since taken a job with the Milton public school system. 

“I’m ecstatic,” Barrett said in a statement. “Whay happened to me was wrong, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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