Why These Students Have the Best Gift of the Year

Eastside Catholic protestA group of students from a Seattle-area private school and their peers around the region have given themselves, their families and the rest of us watching what just might be the best gift of the season.

Last week, Eastside Catholic High School ceased to employ Mark Zmuda, the vice principal and swim coach who had been at the school in Sammamish for about a year and a half. The reason: Over the summer, the 38-year-old, who is gay, married his partner — a breach of the school’s employment contract and a violation of the Church’s prohibition of same-sex unions.

Some things that happened next:

Sources at the school and the Archdiocese of Seattle gave conflicting messages about whether Zmuda was fired or resigned.

The story began to gain national media attention, joining a string of other high-profile instances in which Catholic institutions have fired gay employees around the issue of same-sex marriage.

But most importantly of all, what happened next was this:

The kids said no. No to their beloved teacher being canned (or forced out, whatever the case was). They said no to status quo. They said no to staying quiet.

They walked out of class. They staged a sit-in. They rallied. They marched. They texted, called, organized, and joined with students at other area Catholic schools to request that Eastside’s administration and the Archdiocese reinstate Zmuda. They petitioned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to change the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on gay marriage.

They sang.

These brave public actions for change, in true harmony with the Church’s teachings on pushing for social justice, will have a lasting impact on the students involved. And it is a gift to all of us.

“It’s hard for us to have our kids at a school that would do this,” said Rachel Allen, who has a middle schooler and a high schooler at Eastside and disagrees with what happened to Zmuda. “But my daughter said to me, ‘Honestly mom, I feel more proud to be a part of this.’”

rainbow pencilsAt first, the kids’ energy was new and adrenaline-fueled; a perception of injustice does this to us. As the days went by, a more realistic view of what might be involved in effecting change set in, said Allen. “Now they’re realizing it’s going to be a longer fight.”

The support, from those in the Catholic community and beyond, has piled on. Sunday some students held a rally before the Seahawks game down by the stadium. Person after person came up to the kids, honked on the drive by, offered their support. More protesting could take place after the Christmas holiday, say those involved. All of this has been driven by the kids themselves.

The events around the removal of Zmuda have been divisive, to be sure. One Eastside teacher, echoing the sentiments of many observers and online commentators, said that Zmuda knew what he was getting into when he accepted the rules of employment at Eastside.

Yet the teacher, who requested not to be named and whose “conscience is still unclear” on the issue of same-sex marriage, said the students’ actions resulted in a learning moment.

The teacher also wondered about whether the school is as concerned about other violations of the Church’s teachings:

“Would [they] have asked a teacher or administrator who was going through a divorce, or who was remarrying after a divorce without going through an annulment, to resign, as well, since divorce also goes against Catholic teaching but isn't really the issue of the day right now? Or what about an unmarried female teacher who became pregnant? These might all be considered, perhaps, as grounds for breach of contract, because they are publicly going against the Church's teachings.”

What happens next remains to be seen. It is a gift that these students are already poised to make important civil-rights change. Their actions (in the same week that a federal judge in Utah overturned that state’s ban on same-sex marriage) speak to hope. They stood up, and that is everything.

I can think of nothing more hope-giving on Christmas Eve than the next generation of humans acting on love.

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