The Deacon's Bench

A Catholic school teacher in Texas has just lost her job — and is now considering suing the school.

The issue: an annulment. Or lack thereof.

The local paper has the story:

Less than a week before Marquis LaFortune was supposed to marry her fiance, the principal of the downtown Catholic high school where she worked as an English teacher called her into his office to warn that a “scandal” was looming.

The scandal, the deacon informed the bride-to-be, was her coming marriage.

LaFortune married anyway, but now she’s the one who feels scandalized. Fired from Central Catholic High School for the Nov. 22 wedding, the 25-year-old has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and wants to sue the school.

The reason for her termination turns on a theological tenet. According to Catholic doctrine, participants in a marriage must be an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. LaFortune told the principal that her fiance had been divorced — a proceeding not recognized by the Catholic Church.

The deacon was concerned with whether the first marriage of LaFortune’s fiance, Benjamin Stakes, had been declared invalid by a Catholic tribunal and thereby annulled. His concern, however, did not sit well with LaFortune, who refused to resign from her job or seek an annulment — a process that could reach to Rome and take more than a year.

“I would have resigned if I’d felt like I’d done something wrong,” LaFortune said last week, adding that the conflict put a strain on her wedding preparations. “I couldn’t get out of bed. It’s just been this cloud. It was supposed to be the best week of my life, and I had to pull myself together for the ceremony.”

The school’s president said federal law supports the school’s stance.

“We have very clear policies on what we expect from Catholic people on our faculty, and there has been a violation of that,” Brother Peter Pontolillo said. “When a person does something that is obviously contrary to everything that our Catholic school stands for, we cannot just look through our fingers.”

“Victory Bells, Anyone?”

So ran a headline in the November edition of The Pep, the student newspaper that LaFortune helped manage. The story trumpeted a win by the football team before segueing into an announcement of LaFortune’s marriage.

“In addition to gaining a new last name,” the article stated, “Ms. LaFortune will also be inheriting a beautiful stepdaughter.”

Soon after, Deacon Patrick Cunningham asked LaFortune if her fiance had been married. LaFortune, who’d worked at the school for more than a year, said yes.

He then gave her a choice: Seek an annulment, resign or be fired.

“There is a high likelihood of scandal here,” Cunningham wrote in a letter to LaFortune later that day, “when there is a public repudiation (even if it is unintentional) of the Church’s understanding of the marital covenant. This is not something that Central Catholic High School can support.”

And in most cases, it’s not something that religious institutions must support, according to one expert in constitutional law.

“As a general matter, religious institutions are free to engage in religious discrimination in employment,” said Ira C. Lupu, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. “The question is, are they applying the policy consistently? I think the point about consistency is very important.”

Reached on Monday, Cunningham said the high school does not ask all its Catholic employees whether the Catholic Church would consider their marriages valid.

In his letter to LaFortune, the deacon cited the story in The Pep as a complicating factor because it made the previous marriage public. And he added Monday that some students at the school knew that LaFortune was marrying someone who’d been divorced from a marriage that hadn’t been annulled.

LaFortune refuted that.

“Why would I tell the students, hey I’m getting married, and by the way, I’m getting married to someone who didn’t have their first marriage annulled?” she asked.

She added: “(The issue of an annulment) wasn’t made public until he asked the question. And I frankly feel that’s none of his business. And if it is his business, then he needs to ask everyone those questions.”

The conflict threw LaFortune into an emotional tailspin…

Continue at the link for the rest of that spin.

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