For nine years, Barbara Webb, 33, taught honors chemistry and coached sports at Marian High School, a private Roman Catholic girls’ school in Bloomfield Hills, a Detroit suburb.
When she told her employer she was pregnant, she says she was given two options: resign or be fired.
Why? Because she got pregnant “outside the Catholic way,” as she put it in a Facebook post in late August announcing her pregnancy with Kristen Lasecki, her partner of more than five years. In same post, she announced the news of her dismissal.
In August, the school offered to pay for her healthcare through May if she left quietly, Webb said. She refused. Not just because the offer was insulting to her, but she felt it sent the wrong message to her students.
“It is part of Marian’s mission to educate women about human diversity and in this have really missed out on a true life opportunity to set an example. Instead they are only perpetuating hate,” she wrote. She added: “It is a shame because Marian is an amazing school with a wonderful staff and a very promising student body. I feel horrible for the students that I was forced to leave behind and wish them only the best.”
The president of the school, Sister Lenore Pochelski, confirmed to the Detroit Free Press that Webb was no longer at the school as of Aug. 19, but refused to comment further.
Webb told the Free Press her termination letter didn’t give a reason for her dismissal, but school administrators referenced the school’s morality clause in previous conversations. The clause forbids teachers from publicly engaging in or endorsing “actions or beliefs directly contrary to the teachings and standards of the Roman Catholic faith and morality.”
“That you can’t hide a pregnancy from the public is why I was terminated,” she told the paper.
The Catholic church forbids artificial insemination and homosexual relationships.
Marian High senior Brigid Johnson told the Free Press that Webb’s absence was not explained to students, who were forbidden to speak about it. A school staffer who wouldn’t give her name for fear of reprisal told ABC teachers had been told not to talk about it too.
Webb’s parents went with her to clean out her desk as school. “Every time I think about it, it just brings me to tears,” her father, William Webb, told ABC. “She was happy where she was. Everyone loved her. It’s a shame it came to this. She does have a right to have a child.”
On Facebook, Webb said her intention is not to “bad mouth Marian” but to inspire change. She called on others to “speak out against hate wherever you see it.”
“My job can’t be saved but the torment that the poor LGBT students at Marian must be feeling … the other LGBT staff … and those that are silenced by fear can be helped,” she wrote. She added: “It is only when the masses can stand up to injustice that we all may have a chance to fulfill our life dreams and ambitions.”
Webb’s story is a familiar one to Charlene Genther, 63, who was fired from her job as safety officer at Marian in 2006 after writing a book in which she talked openly about being a lesbian, ABC reported.
“Pope Francis said he doesn’t judge,” Genther said. “Someone has to start the change somehow. I believe in Christianity. I believe Jesus Christ wants us to love people and judge us on what we do and who we are as human beings, not who we love. I know what it’s like to be fired for who you are in your soul; it’s just horrible.”
This weekend, more than 100 supporters attended a rally at the school organized by Amanda Ruud McVety, a 2002 Marian graduate, the Detroit Free Press reported. McVety also started the “I Stand with Barb Webb” Facebook group which had more than 3,600 members, including many former Marian students, as of early Monday morning.
Amber Mazza Cunnings, a 2001 Marian graduate, told the Free Press that sticking up for Webb was in line with what she was taught at Marian. “Marian teaches us about social justice in profound ways,” she said. “This is a human rights issue.”
Webb has not decided whether to press charges. Deborah Gordon, an employment lawyer in Bloomfield Hills, told the Free Press that while pregnancy discrimination is illegal, this case could fall within an exemption for religious institutions. She it would be Webb’s pregnancy rather than her sexual orientation that was the issue.
“I would want to know if gender was a factor,” Gordon said. “Are there male teachers who have impregnated other people and the male is not married? The problem for the woman is you’re visibly pregnant.”
Last year, a Catholic school teacher who was fired after becoming pregnant via artificial insemination won a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Christa Dias, who is gay, worked as a computer teacher at two schools run by the archdiocese. Her lawyer argued she was fired because she was pregnant and unmarried — a dismissal that violated of federal and state law. Like Webb, Dias’s contract contained a morality clause that required her to abide by the church’s teachings. A jury awarded her more than $170,000 in back pay.
Employers are barred by federal law from firing someone because of their sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability, genetic information and age. Some states have passed laws against firing for sexual orientation, but federal law does not forbid it.