Jan 30 7:15 PM

Gay educator’s departure exposes rift in Catholic Church

Watch parts two and three of this report.

“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong. I married the love of my life,” Mark Zmuda told America Tonight in his first national TV interview. “It’s legal in the state of Washington. And it’s very important. I want to be married. And I want to still have my faith and still believe in God.”

Zmuda was the vice principal and a popular swim coach at Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish, a suburb east of Seattle. And he’s one of a handful of gay and lesbian Catholic school educators who say they have been fired for marrying their partners. 

Mark Zmuda, right, and his husband, Dana Jergens.
America Tonight

It’s something of a Catholic version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with gay teachers saying their sexual orientation was known and ignored — that is until they exercised their new rights to marry.

It happened in Ohio this month, when a band and choir director at a Catholic school was fired just hours after telling the school’s presidents of his plans to marry his boyfriend. Last month a French and Spanish teacher at a suburban Philadelphia Catholic school was fired after applying for a wedding license, even though he says he was with his partner throughout his 12-year tenure at the school and took him to several school functions. In 2012 when a Catholic school in Missouri learned that its music teacher was planning to marry his partner, it ordered him to leave his post on the day of the wedding.

And last month, Zmuda says, it happened to him too. 

A narrow majority of U.S. Catholics say they support same-sex marriage. At Eastside, students, parents and alumni have — with passion and anger — flocked to Zmuda’s defense, exposing an enormous rift among American Catholics.

Two competing stories

Mark Zmuda was a popular swimming coach at Eastside in addition to being a well-regarded administrator.
America Tonight

Zmuda says administrators and colleagues knew he was gay and that he lived with his partner.

“They asked me not to bring my partner, Dana Jergens, at the time, to any of our school events, not to bring up issues or questions,” Zmuda explained. “So he was not invited to anything. So we kept our private life private.”

They kept their wedding private too. It took place last July, with no noise and no controversy. But last month, a teacher overheard Zmuda talking about wedding flowers.

Zmuda says a few teachers went to his supervisor. And then the school’s president, Sister Mary Tracy, confronted him. He says he admitted that he was “married to the love of my life.”

“It’s unfortunate,” she responded, according to Zmuda. 

I just couldn’t believe anybody would just ask me to (get a divorce). I love my husband. I love being married.

Mark Zmuda

Zmuda claims he was then fired for violating Catholic teachings.

The school’s attorney, Michael Patterson, has a different story. He says Zmuda, recognizing that he was violating his contract to uphold Catholic principles, voluntarily resigned his post.

But Zmuda and Patterson agree about what Tracy said next: suggest that Zmuda might get a divorce to keep his job. Patterson said it was a proposal made in a moment of “frustration” and not an official response in consultation with him or church personnel.

Either way, Zmuda was flabbergasted. “This was just kind of brazen,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe anybody would just ask me to do that. I love my husband. I love being married.”

In 29 states, it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. The state of Washington has a law barring discrimination against gay employees, but it doesn’t necessarily apply when the employer is a church or is affiliated with one. In 2012 the Supreme Court affirmed for the first time a “ministerial exception.” The Constitution’s protection of religious freedom, the court concluded, granted religious positions immunity from anti-discrimination laws. Exactly who qualifies as a minister, however, is unclear and includes employees who have “a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.”

‘A big media mess’

Zmuda’s supporters demonstrate their support at Archdiocese of Seattle headquarters while delivering a petition demanding his reinstatement.
America Tonight

Nobody doubts that , popularly known as “Mr. Z” at the school, was an exceptional vice principal. Patterson said he was “very much admired and appreciated.”

“Initially, I was just really sad and upset and kind of overwhelmed that something so unfair could happen,” said Sienna Colburn, an Eastside student. “Because he’s such a great person that I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why it was happening.”

“And then after it kind of turned to anger,” she added, “at the school and at the archdiocese for doing this to him.”

News of Zmuda’s departure plunged Eastside, a middle and high school of about 900 students, into a public-relations nightmare.

Students held a mass sit-in and launched a social-media campaign. Alumni conducted rallies and warned the school they would stop donating. Parents threatened to remove their children. A petition calling for Zmuda’s reinstatement garnered more than 20,000 signatures. 

I feel like I’m a better person because I know him.

Florence Colburn

Parent of an Eastside student

“I feel like I’m a better person because I know him, even though I haven’t known him that well,” says Florence Colburn, Sienna’s mother. “He’s bringing things out in me that I like. I like seeing myself trying to help his cause and help our school ultimately turn a page.”

The school has held weekly crisis meetings with parents, faculty, administrators and alumni, as local media chronicled each development. And last month the chairman of the school board resigned. A few weeks later, Tracy followed suit.

“I don’t want my alma mater to have a black eye. I don’t want a scarlet letter,” said Corey Sinser, an alumnus who has been part of the campaign to reinstate Zmuda. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who went to the school with all the problems and they fire gay people and people leave and it’s a big media mess.”

If any people connected to the school are in favor of Zmuda’s departure, they’ve so far stayed silent. Even Tracy, before leaving her post, urged an 18-year-old senior, Julia Burns, to publicly share this comment, reported The New York Times: “I look forward to the day when no individual loses their job because they are married to a person of the same sex.”

Z Day

But the school board has not reversed its position, and the Seattle Archdiocese has stood by that call.

“Mr. Zmuda’s decision presented the school with a difficult challenge, one that required a lot of reflection and prayer,” archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni told protesters when they delivered the petition. “Ultimately, the school decided that it had to be faithful to its mission as a Catholic school. And the archdiocese supports the school board and the administration in its decision.”

“How does this square with what the Pope says about gays?” one protester asked, referring to a comment made by Pope Francis that received praise from gay-rights groups and made headlines around the world: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

“Well, you know, Pope Francis has reminded us of the limitless mercy of God,” Magnoni replied. “Pope Francis has also reminded us that as Catholics, we have a responsibility to live the fullness of Catholic teaching, and that includes our teaching on traditional marriage.”

But this official position hasn’t deterred student activists, who marked Jan. 31 as Z Day and urged Zmuda’s supporters to wear orange, one of the school’s colors.  

“I’m honored. I’m touched,” said Zmuda about the outpouring of support from students. “I could not be more proud of just their efforts for all the different things. I mean, they stood up for me in what they thought was right.” 

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