A Southern California man who taught at a Catholic high school for 17 years was fired days after he married his partner.
Students say Ken Bencomo, 45, was one of the most beloved teachers at St. Lucy’s Priory High School, an all-girl school in Glendora, Calif.
Bencomo and his partner Christopher Persky, 32, were one of the first couples to line up on July 1 at the San Bernardino County Assessor-Recorder’s Office to get married after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.
That same day, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin ran a front-page photo and online video of the newlyweds celebrating their marriage.
Last week, St. Lucy’s students started talking on social media about the absence of Bencomo from their fall schedules. When they suspected the teacher had been fired, former student Brittany Littleton, 23, started a petition on Change.org to get Bencomo re-hired. As of 11 a.m. PST on Thursday, the petition had over 8,500 signatures.
The petition describes Bencomo and his involvement in the school:
He is a beloved mentor, confidant, and educator. His passion for teaching, as well as his witty personality, have made him a favorite teacher among many students. He is extremely active at St. Lucy’s; he teaches multiple subjects along with taking on various leadership positions including Yearbook moderator, dance coach, and head of the English Department.
On July 12, Bencomo was notified in person by Assistant Principal Sister Helen Dziuk that he was being terminated because his marriage violates the church’s teachings, Bencomo’s lawyer, Patrick McGarrigle, told HuffPost.
“The happiest day of his life has turned into a nightmare,” McGarrigle said. “He’s sick about it because he has such an affinity for the school. His lifelong efforts have been disrupted. The humiliation hurts him very much.”
Bencomo would like to resolve the matter with the school without any litigation, McGarrigle said. Before his marriage, Bencomo had signed an employment renewal contract with St. Lucy’s in May.
Jessica Navarro, a 2011 alum of St. Lucy’s, expressed her gratitude to “Mr.B” on Facebook.
“Mr. B was the one who gave me the opportunity to dance and choreograph in the style that I love most,” Navarro wrote. “He put faith into me and gave me the responsibility of choreographing pieces for the hip hop team and for my dance class and just by having someone so friendly and welcoming as him gave me more faith in myself as a dancer.”
“I hope the school delivers an apology to Bencomo and [its] students,” she continued. Instead of going back to St. Lucy’s, “Bencomo deserves to go to an institution that didn’t treat him poorly based on his love life.”
Students say that it was well-known on campus for years that Bencomo was in a committed relationship. Several staff members had met his partner, who he has been with for 10 years, Bencomo’s lawyer said.
“It was known by 99 percent of the school that he was gay but it was never an issue in the past,” Littleton said to HuffPost. “I think it’s very hypocritical to be OK with someone and their relationship until they are open about it.”
“In fact, in a social justice religion class, we were taught to be inclusive and fight for peoples’ rights,” she recalled to HuffPost.
Students, alum and supporters are planning a march in support of Bencomo at St. Lucy’s on Aug. 8. Over 1,500 people have RSVP’d for the march on Facebook.
St. Lucy’s declined to comment to The Huffington Post but has released the following public statement.
“We respect and protect privacy interests and, to be respectful of those involved, the school does not comment on confidential matters,” the school stated. “St. Lucy’s wishes to reassure all in our community that upholding its mission to educate students in the tradition of the Catholic faith is of paramount importance.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles parish staff handbook states that an employee may be disciplined, including suspended or terminated, for “behavior counter to the moral teachings and standards of the church.”
The Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino could not be reached for comment.
“Do they fire teachers who get divorced? Or who treat their gay children with dignity and respect instead of shaming them?” Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide, told HuffPost in commenting on the case.
“How sad to see an employer practicing discrimination so at odds with the teachings of the Golden Rule and the spirit of what the Pope himself went out of his way to say just a few days ago,” Wolfson said.
Pope Francis made headlines last week by saying, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can’t marginalize these people.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Catholics are in favor of “making same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states.”
However, the law does not protect LGBT employees of religious institutions.
“Unfortunately for the students at the countless religious schools in our country, the legal thumb usually is on the discrimination side of the scales,” Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel and director of the Lambda Legal Law and Policy Project, told HuffPost.
Federal legislation prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, nation of origin, age and any disability — it does not ban discrimination based on gender identify or sexual orientation. Thus, in 33 states that currently don’t have state bans, people can be fired, denied a promotion or harassed, merely for being LGBT.
According to a poll from the Center for American Progress, nine out of 10 Americans mistakenly think that LGBT individuals are already protected from workplace discrimination under federal law.
Nineteen years after its introduction into the political arena, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed a Senate committee last month. ENDA would ban workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but religious organizations are exempted.
LGBT activists think that religious exemption is too broad and should be narrowed to have the same parameters as Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion.
While litigation is a last resort, McGarrigle said that he believes his client has a case because “the law is changing here. No one expected the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA.”
While sexual orientation in the workplace is not federally protected, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation. FEHA does have an exemption for religious institutions, but McGarrigle thinks it does not apply because of the administration’s knowledge of Bencomo’s sexual orientation and partner for years, and his long-term employment and continued promotion at the school.
“This is a very unique circumstance,” McGarrigle said. “Not like one that has ever been litigated before.”
Lucy’s alum Abigail O’Brien, 19, wrote on Facebook about joining the effort to support Bencomo:
I love St. Lucy’s – I love SL for the faculty that knew when I was having a ‘bad’ day, the tradition(s) of a beautiful ‘Our Father’ prayer, the students that walked with me up and down those infamous stairs, and the community that is coming together on this page.
Mr.B should still be working there … and that belief is what we are standing up for.
Proud, humbled, and overwhelmed with love -We are sisters, and we are that change.