A Fuzzy Separation

The separation between church and state is commonly believed to be a fundamental aspect of American culture. But that “separation” isn’t always so clear.

By Connie Kwong


Catholic high schools in the Bay Area are making headlines for trying to stick to religious doctrine. The Diocese of Oakland is implementing a morality clause in its teacher contracts requiring teachers to conform to church teachings outside of work. At Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School in San Francisco, lesbian high school student Jessica Urbina’s picture was removed from her high school yearbook because she wore a suit and tie instead of a dress for her senior portrait.

The First Amendment tells us that we must uphold the separation between church and state, but this is not an easy distinction to establish. The two stories mentioned above demonstrate that the principle of separation between church and state complicates issues about private versus public matters. Opposing parties have both cited it as justification for their support or opposition for different acts and policies.

While I do not advocate that we strip Catholic schools of their religious freedom, I am concerned about the intentions of the Diocese of Oakland given the timing of this policy. Yes, the teachers are obviously aware that they are employed by a Catholic school and must respect Catholic doctrine. But the contract essentially forces them to conform to an entire set of rules they may not necessarily believe in. This prompts me to ask: how will the morality clause even be enforced outside of school?

UC Berkeley School of Law professor David Rosenfeld points out that even though a morality clause like the one the Diocese of Oakland has proposed would be protected by the First Amendment, this change is still “a bizarre, bizarre thing.” Rosenfeld also notes that Catholic schools have hired non-Catholics for years, and have “tolerated that, if not encouraged it, as long as you don’t preach your religion in the classroom.” 18% of teachers employed by the diocese are not Catholic, but they were hired. Simply put, the morality clause infringes on teachers’ private lives.

Similarly, Jessica Urbina’s story further demonstrates how school policies may overstep boundaries by violating personal freedom. I say “may” because it is necessary to reiterate that the separation between church and state is a fuzzy issue. The Archdiocese of San Francisco clearly outlines that girls must wear dresses for their senior portraits in its dress code, and this policy is indeed protected by the First Amendment. But according to Ilona Turner, legal director of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, if Sacred Heart receives state funds as part of its budget, it could be violating a new law that “prohibits schools from denying students access to sex-segregated activities and programs on the basis of their gender identity or a gender non-conforming appearance.

At the same time, school president John F. Scudder and principal Gary Cannon recently issued an apology on behalf of Sacred Heart acknowledging that it made a mistake in excluding her senior portrait from the yearbook. The letter reads, “While many gay and lesbian alumni and students have commented on the inclusive, supportive aspect of our school community, others have remarked on some prejudice that still exists. As a school, we must better learn how to support our students who are navigating issues of gender identity…While there are those who want to make this situation an example of problems with Catholicism, we want to be clear that this letter, our apology, and our decisions moving forward come not in spite of our Catholicism, but precisely because of it.”

This letter brings to mind Pope Francis II, when he surprised the world last year by declaring, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While some may argue that these statements clearly deviate from church doctrine, others might argue that in contrary, the pope’s statements simply offer a more nuanced view on morality and acceptance within Catholicism. I do not think religious schools are simply hiding behind the First Amendment with their policies, but I wonder about the extent to which the protections that we take for granted under the First Amendment may be obstructing our ability to have meaningful dialogue on the relationship between religion and education. This is an issue of what matters most at what time. The bottom line is that schools should be a safe place for students and teachers alike. This debate should not be about pointing fingers and calling institutions bigoted or hypocritical. It is about boundaries, respect for both religious doctrine and personal freedom, and what it means to be a student and teacher at a religious school.

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One comment on “A Fuzzy Separation
  1. Public schools funded by the government obviously need to comply with the separation of church and state. Private Catholic schools exist to provide education in a religious setting. The religious part is a fundamental reason for their existence. If people do not want to align themselves with their rules, they are free to leave and attend/teach at public school. It’s not fair to ask a religious institution to bend their beliefs, while the people attending the institution are always given the flexibility and choice of leaving/attending in the first place.

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