Catholic teacher fired for same-sex marriage views prays for dialogue

Trish Cameron
Trish Cameron lost her teaching job at a St. Joe's Catholic School in Moorhead, Minn. after supervisors learned she supported same-sex marriage.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Trish Cameron comes from a strong Catholic tradition. She attended Catholic schools in Moorhead for 12 years. She regularly attends Mass.

But after losing her job at a Catholic elementary school for challenging the church's position on same sex-marriage, Cameron, 46, now prays for healthy dialogue on a "closed and painful" topic.

After 11 years teaching fifth graders at St. Joseph's Catholic school in Moorhead, the same-sex marriage issue was on Cameron's mind as she filled out her annual self-evaluation form this spring.

Part of the evaluation asked teachers to rate how well they support the teachings of the church. In the comment box, Cameron wrote, "I do not agree with all church teachings on a personal level, but I do not bring my own opinions into religion classes."

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That comment led to a meeting with her principal and superintendent where she explained her break with the church on the issue of same-sex marriage. One week later, they asked her to resign.

"I don't think there was any hiding my feelings, but along the way at the moments of dialogue was I thinking, 'gee I'm jeopardizing my employment?' No," she said. "That never crossed my mind."

Cameron said her decision to speak out goes back to a day last fall, when Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Diocese of Crookston made his annual visit to her class.

"When he came to talk to my fifth graders this year this was the topic, gay marriage and the Minnesota Marriage Amendment," she recalled. "And it ended with a direct call to 'talk to your parents,' kind of 'tell them how to vote and make sure — this is important for the church.' And I was really troubled by that, I was very uncomfortable with that."

"I do not agree with all church teachings on a personal level, but I do not bring my own opinions into religion classes."

Cameron said she felt a fifth grade classroom was not the appropriate place for a political discussion of the marriage amendment, which would change Minnesota's Constitution to allow marriage only between a man and a woman. Cameron said she can't remember another instance in 11 years where a bishop expressed political views in the classroom.

Bishop Hoeppner's office did not respond to an interview request.

Cameron said church officials told her the definition of marriage is an issue with no room for discussion.

She believes her firing was not justified but is not planning any legal action against the church.

Cameron said she understands the church requires teachers to adhere to Catholic tenets and beliefs and that church officials may terminate employment at any time. But she said she never discussed her opinion of same sex marriage with her students.

St. Joe's Catholic School
Administrators at St. Joe's Catholic School in Moorhead, Minn. asked teacher Trish Cameron to resign over her support of same-sex marriage.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

St. Joseph's School Superintendent Monsignor Mike Foltz declined an interview request. In an email, he wrote, "It is of divine revelation and what more can I say?"

Cameron said the school wanted her to simply resign her position, but she did not want to leave parents and students wondering what happened. After a lot of intense discussion, Cameron said, the church allowed her to send a letter to parents. She explained she was asked to leave the school because of her position on same-sex marriage.

The school also sent a letter to parents announcing that Cameron would not return to her fifth grade class. In the letter, school officials don't refer to the same-sex marriage issue directly, but said, "As a school we hold ourselves to a standard to embrace and hold dear the church's teachings, particularly Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition."

By mailing the letters, school officials made Cameron's challenge of church teachings became public, just as the school year ended.

Cameron said she hoped to use the teacher-evaluation process to express her concern about the church bringing politics into her classroom. She also wanted to start a discussion about same-sex marriage that she hoped would spill over into local congregations.

Daily reminder
Trish Cameron said this wall hanging is a daily reminder she has a responsibility to challenge injustice. The beads were worn by her brother, who was murdered more than 20 years ago. Cameron said he was active in social justice issues.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Cameron recalls a proposal she made during discussions with school officials about how to handle her dismissal from the school.

"Wouldn't it be something if we could walk out of these doors together me in the middle, principal on one side, priest on the other and [say] 'we really wanted Mrs. Cameron to teach here next year, but she believes gay marriage is OK, so she can't.' And I could say I really want to teach here next year, but I believe gay marriage is OK, so I can't. And from there we both stand with the fallout."

Immediately after church officials asked her to resign, Cameron declined interview requests, saying she didn't want to contribute to an angry, polarizing discussion.

But she said when church officials remained silent, she decided to speak publicly. Cameron believes she represents a segment of the Catholic Church no longer willing to simply accept what the church leaders say without discussion. Cameron said she has heard from many Catholics who tell her they are also struggling with the same-sex marriage issue.

"We want to talk. This matters in our life. To some of us it's extraordinarily painful. To some of us it's really confusing," she said. "I have teenagers with close friends that are openly gay and those friends matter to them."

Cameron also said that she and other parents are afraid that the battle over same-sex marriage will alienate their children from the church.

"After generations of being planted and rooted in the Catholic faith, we're afraid we can't hand this faith comfortably to them," she said.

Cameron said she is not asking the church to sanctify same sex-marriage. But she does want church officials to talk about the issue. She worries they have slammed the door on dialogue.

"If that is what the church chooses to say in the end — divine revelation and no more dialogue, then I guess for me even my own future as a Catholic which matters a lot to me, that part of it I don't know yet," she said. "It really does matter how the church responds to this."

Cameron said her faith is strong and she won't turn away from the Catholic Church in the near future. But she said if the church continues to ignore the plea to talk about difficult questions like same-sex marriage, she will have no choice but to find a more open and accepting place to worship.

This fall, Cameron will start a new job teaching in a Fargo Public School.