A gay music teacher at a Lutheran school in Iowa was forced to resign earlier this year after someone hacked his phone and posted personal information about him to Facebook.
Matthew Gerhold was hired by Valley Lutheran School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, last summer to teach music. According to state records, he informed school officials at the time that he was gay.
But administrators were intent on keeping his sexual orientation a secret.
According to findings by Administrative Law Judge Blair Bennett, who oversaw a public hearing on Gerhold’s request for unemployment benefits, the school hired Gerhold on the condition that he refrain from sharing information about his sexual orientation with students, and that he refrain from dating while employed at the school, reports the Iowa Capital Dispatch.
But in January, Gerhold informed his superiors that his phone had been hacked and that someone was attempting to blackmail him by threatening to share information about his sexuality with his friends, family and employer.
Soon after he reported the alleged blackmail attempt, the information about him — including photos — was posted to the school’s Facebook page. Valley Lutheran administrators then placed Gerhold on leave.
Gerhold then met with the school’s head pastor, who is also a board member at the school. The pastor allegedly told Gerhold he would be fired after an upcoming board meeting, and that it would be better for all concerned if he would just quit. Gerhold resigned later that evening.
Gerhold then applied for, and was granted, unemployment benefits. The school appealed the decision, resulting in the hearing before Judge Bennett on May 2.
Following that hearing, Bennett ruled that Gerhold was eligible for benefits because he had committed no workplace misconduct that would disqualify him from eligibility. She also found that Gerhold hadn’t publicly shared any information about his sexual orientation, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the “timeframe of the pictures” posted to the school’s Facebook page constituted a violation of his agreement with the school.
Bennett ruled that the school’s argument “breaks down to [Gerhold] being told he would no longer have a job because of the actions of a third party, not controlled by [Gerhold], completely outside of work.” The evidence provided by the school failed to establish that Gerhold was discharged for misconduct, and found that his resignation was solely prompted by the actions of the blackmailer, who had “maliciously” shared personal information without Gerhold’s consent.
Gerhold told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that he filed a police report in the case, but authorities indicated they don’t have the resources or tools to trace the source of the blackmail threats.
Gerhold said while he recognizes that Valley Lutheran is exempt from state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ employees — based on a legal concept known as the “religious exception,” which allows religious schools to make hiring and firing decisions based on their religious beliefs — he still takes issue with the school’s actions, its demand that he closet his identity, and its decision to punish him for the actions of a third party he didn’t have control over.
He also said the school and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as a whole see “homosexuals as a problem that must be swept under the rug quietly and discreetly.”
“They simply don’t see sexual orientation as involuntary attraction to one sex or another, they see sexuality as choices, whether they admit that or not. I wasn’t the first gay man the church has done this to, and I won’t be the last because the church doesn’t want to listen to understand my story or background,” he said. “They are only listening and waiting to respond to it with pick-and-choose theology.”
He said he loves teaching and will try and seek employment as a music teacher elsewhere.
“My sexual identity has absolutely nothing to do with my career in music and my love for music,” he said. “If the church as a whole doesn’t want to use me for whatever they are striving to achieve, then I shall go somewhere else that would love to have me to live out my vocation for others.”
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