After Totino-Grace fires openly gay teacher, parents differ on policy

Steve Humerickhouse and Terry Sullivan
Steve Humerickhouse and Terry Sullivan meet with a wedding photographer on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. The two were married on Sept. 28. Humerickhouse says he has never faced discrimination at St. Thomas, a Catholic college, because he's gay and in a relationship. There isn't a consistent policy among Catholic schools and colleges on how gay employees in relationships are treated.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

When Bill Hudson, president of Totino-Grace High School, resigned this summer after announcing that for nearly two decades he has been in a committed same-sex relationship, school families started talking.

But the conversations about Catholic school policy, Catholic teachers and how the church views homosexuality kicked into high gear when school officials fired longtime English teacher Kristen Ostendorf. Her offense: telling colleagues she was gay, in a relationship with a woman, and happy.

"Within minutes my phone was ringing," said Amy Holtan, whose son is a sophomore at the high school. "People wanted to talk. Most people were shocked and saddened and needed to talk."

The school follows an employment policy, set out by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which warns employees they can be fired over public conduct that is inconsistent with Catholic teachings. The church does not recognize same sex marriage and teaches that homosexual acts are sinful.

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Holtan said the discussion among her family and friends followed a similar theme. They were sad to see Ostendorf and Hudson go, she said, but felt their departures were necessary, given the church's position.

"If they sign a contract and the contracts are set for everyone there who is employed there," Holtan said of school employees, "I would expect that they abide by those."

Holtan, who is Catholic, said Totino-Grace is a welcoming place that embraces students from all backgrounds, however, she said that allowing school employees to be in same-sex relationships is not compatible with her views on Catholic education.

"I expect my children to be formed in the Catholic Church; that's what we chose," Holtan said. "We want to see that the school is promoting that and we want good role models. Anything less than that would not be acceptable."

Robyn Sitarz, whose two sons attend Totino-Grace, also agrees with that "by the book" approach — at least for now.

But Sitarz, of Maple Grove, said she and many of the families she's talked to, hope for a change in church policy that allows gay employees at schools to be open about their relationships.

"They're hoping to see that change and that there is a more loving, open-arm environment," she said.

Sitarz isn't Catholic, but her husband and children are. She's encouraged by recent comments from Pope Francis, who said the Catholic Church has focused too much on some social issues, including homosexuality.

"He appears to want to be focused on helping others and taking care of others instead of focusing on the rules of the church," Sitarz said.

The Pope's comments come as a number of states, including Minnesota, have legalized same-marriage.

How Catholic schools deal with openly gay employees is primarily a function of whether they are overseen by a diocese or a religious order, who owns the schools, and how conservative their leadership is.

Totino-Grace is an educational ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the Archdiocese owns the land on which the school is located.

There's no consistent policy for how Catholic schools and colleges treat openly gay teachers or staff who are in relationships.

Steve Humerickhouse, a gay man who directs the Office on Workplace Diversity at the University of St. Thomas, said some gay employees are hesitant to let their colleagues know that they are gay.

But Humerickhouse said he has never faced discrimination at St. Thomas, a private, Catholic, liberal arts university, that is not owned or governed by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"It's not a surprise," said Humerickhouse who recently married his partner, Terry Sullivan. "My partner's photograph, the both of us, is on my desk right here and that's never been an issue."

Humerickhouse hopes to hear more talk at Catholic schools about how to accept gay employees who are in relationships.

He heard some of that dialogue recently from St. Thomas' new president, Julie Sullivan.

During her convocation speech Sullivan said the college should strive to be more welcoming regardless of someone's sexuality, or the gender of their spouse.

She cited a campus survey recently showing some gay students and faculty didn't feel welcome on campus.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis owns and operates Totino-Grace. While Totino-Grace is located on land owned by the Archdiocese, and the school is considered a ministry of the Archdiocese, the Archdiocese does not operate Totino-Grace.