Ken Bencomo, one of the most beloved teachers at St. Lucy's Priory High School in California, was fired only days after he married his long-time partner. The 17-year veteran of the all-girl Catholic school was one of the first gay couples to get married following the Supreme Court decision, ruling that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This case is a clear example of how there must be a federal law that defines specific protection of LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination.
When students discovered that Bencomo had been fired, there was an outpouring of support coupled with anger throughout the school community. A former student, Brittany Littleton, started a petition on Change.org to get Bencomo re-hired. As of now, the petition has over 12,500 signatures. "Mr. B," as some students affectionately refer to him as, was an important member of the community and loved teaching. "Mr. B was the one who gave me the opportunity to dance and choreograph in the style that I love most," said 2011 alum Jessica Navarro. "He put faith into me."
Student have commented that it was well known among the community that Bencomo and his partner of 10 years, Christopher Persky, were in a relationship — some staff had even met Persky. Yet, nothing had ever been said about it before. That all changed on July 1, when their wedding was put on the front page of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and a video story was posted online. Only July 12, Mr. B was fired.
Current federal legislation prevents employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, nation of original, and any disability, but yet does not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. Though some states have state legislature preventing this discrimination, in 33 states it is still legal for a person to be fired for being LGBT.
Although California does have its own law prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community, it excludes religious organizations. Bencomo's lawyers argue that the exemption does apply in this case because the school knew for multiple years that Mr. B was gay and made it an issue until the matter became public. The school was clearly bothered by public recognition that a gay man was working at a Catholic school. It is disconcerting that the school would find it necessary to fire a man who had been so dedicated to his students and their development, simply because the information was now public.
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment, religious schools did have the right to fire teachers if their actions did not align with the organization's religious ideologies.
Last month, a Senate committee passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban workplace discrimination based on "gender identity and sexual orientation." If authorized by Congress, this would be a momentous step in protecting the rights of the LGBT to be treated fairly, and equally in the workplace. Yet this bill also excludes religious institutions.
LGBT activists say that the exemption must be narrowed down to the limitations defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits any form of discrimination. Frankly, I agree.
Though the teachings of the Catholic Church preach against the LBGT community, it doesn't take away the fact that every person deserves lawful and equal employment opportunities. It comes down to a basic civil liberty that everyone deserves. The most angering reality about this case is that Bencomo had been a contributory and loved member of the community for many years, and the school knew that he was gay. Firing him was purely for superficial reasons and it was wrong. Congress must take swift action to pass legislation that adds to the common understanding that no one should be discriminated against in a workplace, including for their sexual orientation or identity.