Seattle Catholic school students protest gay vice principal's dismissal

Mark Zmuda, the vice principal, was asked to resign after marrying his same-sex partner

An Eastside Catholic School student holds up a sign during a rally in support of the school's former Vice Principal Mark Zmuda at the Archdiocese of Seattle chancery building in Seattle on Friday.
REUTERS/David Ryder

Students from Eastside Catholic School in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish protested outside the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle Friday following news that their vice principal was forced to resign for marrying his same-sex partner. 

The demonstration followed a Thursday sit-in and subsequent walk-out at the school, which has middle school and high school students, after students learned that Mark Zmuda, 38, would have to leave his position.

Caelan Colburn, a student organizer at the Friday protest, told Al Jazeera that about 150 students from various Catholic schools in the area convened in front of the archdiocese in support.

The Eastside Catholic School announced Thursday that classes would be canceled Friday due to forecast snow "and in light of the difficult day" the school had experienced when hundreds of students staged the sit-in.

Although same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of Washington in 2012, the Eastside School, like other Catholic schools, has faculty members sign a contract vowing to follow the Church's doctrine, which strictly prohibits same-sex marriage.

School officials met with Zmuda on Tuesday about his July nuptials. Colburn said that soon after the meeting, rumors of Zmuda's dismissal began to circulate around the school.

Zmuda, who was also the school's swim coach, confirmed the rumors Wednesday night to his students during a swim meet.

Colburn's sister, a member of the school's swim team, broke the news to her brother "in tears," Colburn said.

"She was upset. She told me that the school had let him go because of his same-sex marriage."

On Thursday, Colburn and a few other students coordinated the sit-in and walk-out.

"We tweeted and texted people and told them to attend the sit-in. Pretty soon, about 200 students gathered. An hour after that, we marched onto the street and 400 had gathered," Colburn said. "The school's president eventually came out and tried to get us to return to class."

Zmuda spoke to rallying students on Thursday, according to a recording obtained by local TV affiliate Kiro 7:

"I think a lot of you guys are raised in a generation that is more open and acceptable to things that are legal now in the state of Washington. But I just want you to know that my personal life is a small part of who I am," Zmuda said. "I am first a teacher and administrator. And I try my best to be an educator to each and every one of you. And 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. At the same time, no matter what happens, strive to do your best."

Colburn said that school president Sister Mary E. Tracy, an administrator, told students that the decision was ordered by the Archdiocese of Seattle. But Colburn said that he is skeptical.

"We feel the administrators haven't done enough to protect him. Only the students have come to his defense," he said. "I strongly believe that gay people are equal human beings and deserve the same rights we have. The administration made it very clear that they care more about following the Archdiocese than doing the right thing."

Tracy published a statement on the school's website Friday in response to increasing criticisms. She said that she and Zmuda reached "an understanding" that the correct action was for him to submit his resignation.

"Please know that this decision was difficult for everyone and that I understand your concern for Mark," she wrote. "Be assured that Eastside Catholic School is committed to assisting him in this time of transition."

Petitioning the church

Colburn told Al Jazeera that students will continue to place pressure on the school and the archdiocese until "something changes" within the church.

"We already have a lot of international support. People from all around the world are reaching out to us on social media to ask how they can help," he said. 

An online petition that was created by another Eastside student, asking the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help change the church's stance on gay marriage, has already garnered nearly 20,000 signatures and was the third fastest growing U.S. petition on on Friday, according to The Associated Press. Students also created a Twitter profile with the handle @KeepMrZ2013 and the hashtag KeepMrZ2013.

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain campaigned against Washington state's Referendum 74 legalizing same-sex marriage last year. When Washington voters approved the measure, Sartain ordered that no Catholic Church, facility or school be used for such a marriage.

For his part, Pope Francis has been more receptive to gays and has said that the church should not "interfere spiritually" in the lives of homosexuals. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said in July. Nevertheless, the church changing its stance on same-sex marriage is not at all guaranteed, though there has been much speculation on whether Francis will be the pope to make the change.

Zmuda's termination follows a string of dismissals by archdioceses across the U.S. of school officials who married same-sex partners. 

Earlier this month, a teacher at a Catholic high school in suburban Philadelphia was terminated for applying for a marriage license with his same-sex partner. Holy Ghost Preparatory School said that the marriage license "contradicts the terms of his teaching contract."

Similarly, in February, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati dismissed an assistant principal at a Purcell Marian High School, a Catholic school, after he refused to take down a blog post expressing support for same-sex marriage.

"I unabashedly believe that gay people SHOULD be allowed to marry. Ethically, morally and legally I believe this," wrote Mike Moroski on his blog. "As a proud Catholic, I'm heartbroken that my belief that all committed, loving couples should be able to make a public pledge to take responsibility for each other for a lifetime has led to this ultimatum."

In the past two years, at least 10 school officials across the country have been terminated for marrying same-sex partners, according to the Seattle Times.

Friday was Zmuda's last day at Eastside Catholic. He was to attend his last swim meet as coach Friday night, and his supporters attended in solidarity.

A large protest banner hung on one side of the pool  read, "We swim for Zmuda. Love is love. #KeepMrZ2013." 

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