Catholic school settles case that pit gay rights against religious liberty

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MILTON — An all-girls Catholic school has settled a lawsuit brought by the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), alleging that the school violated state anti-discrimination law when it rescinded an offer of employment to a man married to his same-sex partner.

The settlement between Fontbonne Academy in Milton and Matthew Barrett of Dorchester comes almost five months after a Massachusetts judge ruled that the Catholic school did not qualify for the religious exemption from state employment non-discrimination laws and thus had no legal justification for its actions.

Barrett was offered a position in the Fontbonne food service department in 2013, but school officials withdrew the offer days later after learning that Barrett listed his husband as an emergency contact on employment forms.

Barrett sued, alleging that Fontbonne discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation and gender.

Fontbonne defended its actions, arguing that as a Catholic school it had no choice but to rescind the offer because the church prohibits same-sex marriage. Massachusetts exempts religious organizations from complying with certain provisions of the state anti-discrimination law when doing so would violate religious teachings, and Fontbonne claimed protection under that safe harbor provision of the law.

Late last year, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins narrowly construed the state religious exemption, holding that Fontbonne is not a religious organization entitled to protection because the school does not “limit membership, enrollment, admission or participation” to members of the Catholic faith.

Wilkins further rejected the school’s claim that hiring a man in a same-sex marriage is incompatible with its religious mission, reasoning that Barrett’s duties as a food services director would not have included presenting the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Under the terms of the confidential settlement, Fontbonne will pay Barrett, 45, an undisclosed amount of money. The settlement means that the school will not appeal Wilkins’ ruling, which legal experts describe as a case of first impression.

Ben Klein, a GLAD lawyer who represented Barrett in the case, told the Boston Globe that the settlement preserves Judge Wilkins’ ruling and establishes an important legal precedent for future cases where religious liberty is asserted as a defense against discrimination.