Democracy Tree is going to stray from its regular subject matter and address a topic outside of watchdogging the public sector. This story surfaced last week, and since it involves my alma mater, and runs contrary to my personal experience there, I feel compelled to speak.
Although not Catholic myself, or religious at all for that matter, I attended Marian High School, sister school to Brother Rice, in upscale Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
In the 1970s, I was among many non-Catholics to attend the parochial school. Our reasons were various — mine was to avail myself of their outstanding fine arts curriculum. The smaller learning environment was a bonus which suited my personality. The other options were the teeming hallways and overflowing classrooms at Groves or Seaholm High Schools, both top-notch alternatives too.
Last week, Marian was in the news, and not for their academic excellence. School administrators pink-slipped Barb Webb, a respected chemistry teacher, who just happens to be gay, and expecting a baby. Marian officials did not give a reason for her termination, but it is widely believed it was due to her unconventional pregnancy. The Detroit Free Press reports:
Webb told the Free Press last week that her termination letter did not give a reason for her dismissal, but previous conversations with administrators pointed to a morality clause allowing firing over public conduct of “lifestyle or actions directly contradictory to the Catholic faith.”
Back in the ’70s the student body was quietly aware that a number of teachers were not living, what then would have been called, traditional lives. This is nothing new to the school.
On the school’s website, the President of Marian, Sister Lenore M. Polchelski, describes the school environment as a place encouraging students to be open to all:
Our students represent a diverse population, each bringing her individual talents to school, each student enriching the others. Marian High School is a place to grow – intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and physically. We invite you to join us and experience what it is to be empowered to explore and excel.
The argument is that Webb’s pink-slip was not due to her orientation, but instead the result of her pregnancy. Neither should be reason for her termination. This development is wholly antithetical to the inclusive and supportive attitude of nearly 40 years ago. Something’s changed in the Marian culture.
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were a tough tribe of badass nuns who fought hard against sexual discrimination, among other injustices.
Non-Catholics were given free study time during mid-day Mass which was every Thursday, conducted by a visiting Brother Rice Priest in the on-site Marian chapel. For a brief time in 1975, the nuns locked-out the good brother and celebrated their own service, including offering the Eucharist. They continued to block the brother’s access to the school, with the exception of one young priest who coached basketball, whom the students found rather dreamy, and perhaps the nuns and novices did too.
Student pregnancy was rare but openly accepted at Marian. In an age when public schools would send students sporting a baby bump home for the duration, the nuns were tolerant of unwed mothers, which was certainly an “unconventional pregnancy” at that time. My graduating class of 160, had two expectant mothers.
The nuns weren’t afraid of politics either. My international relations teacher, Sister Elizabeth, travelled the globe, and was able to speak first-person about world leaders she had met. One time she returned from an absence to report that she’d brown-bagged lunch in the oval office with President Ford. She explained she had a few thoughts to share with him.
Even the novices were a cheeky bunch. They took advantage of the newly offered personalized license plates in Michigan, with their Chevy Nova sporting “NO VICES.”
All students were required to take religious instruction, which initially gave non-Catholics pause, but the curriculum focused on religious diversity, and the exploration of commonalities. Catholicism was not promoted over other faiths, in fact, more time was devoted to the tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, and what could be learned from eastern thought.
The art department offered extra-curricular classes, which included figure drawing with nude models. If a K-12 school offered that nowadays, it would land some people in prison. That just goes to show how uptight our culture has become about the human body.
Supporters are rallying around Webb, and pressure on school leadership is mounting. The administrative decision to terminate her flies in the face of the teachings of Pope Francis, who was named 2013 Person of the Year by The Advocate, a leading LGBT publication. The Pope has been clear about his views on the matter:
“If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”
If Webb’s termination is truly based on her condition alone, then the school is sending a message that pregnancies outside of traditional marriage are not welcome at Marian, but that is not the policy applied to expectant students — at least not in the 1970s, when they were actively encouraged to carry their pregnancies to term and stay in school. And since the Pope discourages discrimination over sexual orientation, there’s got to be another reason.
Could it be fear of community pressure — that enrollment could decline as parents transfer their daughters to nearby Mercy High School? Is this the decision of bean counters?
It’s time for the Sisters of the IHM to get their badass on again.
Democracy Tree will resume the public policy beat as lawmakers return to Lansing tomorrow — with a special eye on legislation Rep. Frank Foster (R-107) intends to introduce to include sexual orientation and gender identity rights among the protected classes in the state’s existing anti-discrimination law. Conservative groups are against it, and there is question as to whether the bipartisan-supported bill will include a religious exemption.
Webb may find herself the poster-child in this fight.