How Totino-Grace discovered, then fired gay veteran teacher

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A longtime teacher at a Catholic school in Fridley says she was fired after she told other teachers she's in a same-sex relationship.

It's the second high profile departure from Totino-Grace High School in recent months. The school's president resigned this summer after announcing he was in a same-sex relationship.

Such incidents are happening across the country as church doctrine collides with changing views on marriage.

"Most of you know I'm gay. I'm in a relationship with a woman. I'm so happy," Kristen Ostendorf said during a teaching workshop a few weeks ago to about 120 of her fellow teachers.

Ostendorf, an English teacher, campus minister, lacrosse and swim coach for 18 years at the school, says the part about being gay didn't surprise her colleagues. Instead, it was the part about being in a relationship.

"Nobody says in a Catholic school, when you're a woman, 'I'm in a relationship with another woman.' Everybody knows the consequences," she said. Over the next few days Ostendorf found out what those consequences would be: School officials told her she had a choice of resigning or being fired.

She refused to resign.

"I don't feel like telling the truth should cost me my job," she said.

Totino-Grace officials won't say much about what happened. The school released a statement saying the matter is a private one between employer and employee.

"Like all Catholic schools and organizations, Totino-Grace follows the teachings of the church and the employment policies of the Archdiocese," it said in part.

Totino-Grace is ultimately overseen by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Employees sign a contract that details behavior that can cost them their jobs, including this clause: "Public conduct that is inconsistent with the faith, morals, teachings and laws of the Catholic Church."

The Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage.

The Archdiocese didn't respond to requests to comment for this story.

Ostendorf's ouster isn't the first at Totino-Grace linked to the public announcement of same-sex relationships.

In July the school's president, Bill Hudson, resigned the position after telling school officials he was in a relationship with another man.

Hudson said his pronouncement was "freeing," and recently took a job with Mounds Park Academy, a private school in Maplewood.

In their own statement on Hudson, school officials said his situation was "not consistent with teachings of the Catholic Church."

Before Hudson and Ostendorf, there was Chad O'Leary.

O'Leary, who worked in youth ministry on campus, told his bosses at Totino-Grace that he was gay and in a relationship back in 2010.

After a meeting with administrators he felt his only option was to resign.

"It would not be compatible to be in a public relationship with my partner and also do my job," he said.

O'Leary has since left the Catholic Church and now works as a youth minister for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.

Firings at Catholic schools over same-sex relationships appear to be on the rise nationally, according to Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for LGBT employees in Catholic institutions.

"In 2011 there was maybe two or three cases like this. In 2012 there was probably six. And now [this year] we've had well over a dozen," he said.

DeBernardo says that's in part because gay marriage has become legal in more states, like Minnesota, and that has gay employees of Catholic schools speaking up about their relationships.

"The arrival of public affirmation of their relationships is going to bring out more and more of these cases," he said.

For her part, Kristen Ostendorf says she hopes her firing prompts conversation at Totino-Grace, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and in the Catholic Church as a whole about what place gay employees have in Catholic schools.

"I want to be the last person fired for the gender of the person I love. I really want that to be true, I have a feeling that it won't be," she said

Ostendorf is currently looking for another job but has no plans to leave the Catholic Church.

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