Dowling Catholic High School at epicenter of gay rights controversy (updated)

As a religious institution, Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines is exempt from Iowa Code provisions that have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 2007.

But as local Catholic leaders are learning this week, a legal exemption can’t immunize Dowling from political fallout over the decision to withdraw a teaching contract offered to an openly gay man.  

As first reported by KCCI-TV on Monday, Tyler McCubbin has been substitute teaching at Dowling and volunteering as a track coach since the beginning of this school year. Last month, Dowling offered him a full-time teaching position, only to rescind the offer after learning from McCubbin’s Facebook account that he is engaged to a man. KCCI’s story was widely shared on social media, especially in central Iowa, where so many Dowling graduates live.

In the Iowa political world, one of the best-known Dowling alumni is State Senator Matt McCoy, who posted this Facebook status update on April 7:

As a Dowling graduate I am ashamed of the decision of DHS to withdraw a contract for Tyler. While DHS has many wonderful attributes for students, it seems providing a bit of diversity in education is not tolerated. As a result, DHS students are ill prepared for the complexities of real life. While a persons sexual orientation is not a choice, discrimination and bigotry is a learned behavior. I protect the rights of religious institutions to discriminate, but will no longer support their mission with public or private dollars.

The Diocese of Des Moines quickly went into damage control mode. Bishop Richard Pates told KCCI,

McCubbin wasn’t denied the job because he’s gay, but due to the openness of his sexual orientation.

“We accept everybody, we love everybody. Everybody is always welcome within the context of the Catholic Church,” Pates said.

The diocese released a longer written statement from Bishop Pates on April 7:

 Employment Concern with Dowling Catholic High School

A hiring situation arose recently at Dowling Catholic High School that has raised questions.

Catholic schools are an extension of the church and are committed to following the church’s teachings and doctrine in employment matters. Our contracts contain specific language that outline the expected code of conduct in accord with long accepted Church teaching.

Des Moines Catholic schools go through a multi-phased hiring process which includes interviews, a traditional background check and a social media scan. If at any time during that period the candidate or the organization identifies an issue that would preclude support of Church teaching, the school does not extend a written offer.

Recently, an individual applied for a full-time position and, after the entire application process based on the foregoing expectations was completed, a formal written contract wasn’t extended owing to a personal situation that was at odds with Church teaching.

It came to the school’s attention through the social media scan that the applicant is in a same-sex relationship and is engaged.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls for us to accept those with same-sex tendencies “with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2358) Such an approach has guided the school’s relationship with the applicant in question. We wish him only well.

While we respect all persons and civil law in regard to civil unions, the Church teaches based on natural law, Scripture and the Church’s 2,000-year tradition that marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman. The Catholic faith is central to our mission as a Catholic school and is an exercise of religious liberty. To deliver on that mission it is our expectation that staff and teachers support our moral beliefs as they are the models of our Catholic faith.

Also on Tuesday, Dowling students heard an intercom announcement to clarify: “The church makes the distinction between having same-sex attraction, which is not a sin and same-sex actions.” Des Moines Catholic Schools superintendent Luvern Gubbels sent a letter to parents about the hiring controversy. Click through to read the full text of that letter on the Des Moines Register’s website. It largely echoes Bishop Pates’ statement, adding toward the end,

This may cause confusion for students. We believe this is an opportunity for parents to talk with their children about God’s love for each person, and also about Church teaching, its tradition and how they intersect.

Those explanations didn’t satisfy the critics of Dowling. Speaking to KCCI-TV for a follow-up story,

Sen. Matt McCoy, a Dowling graduate, said the school turns a blind eye to other social issues.

“They have many faculty members that are divorced. They have many faculty that have been involved in extramarital affairs, they have turned their head to other issues in society,” McCoy said. […]

Dowling senior Emily McGuire said McCubbin is popular with students and is passionate about teaching.

“In reality, every single one of our teachers has sinned. You know you can’t not hire someone because they’ve sinned, because we’re all children of God. We all sin,” McGuire said. “Just because he’s sinned, I don’t think he shouldn’t be given a position.”

McCoy said the school is on the wrong side of this issue and is encouraging alums to do something about it.

“I would encourage people to close their checkbook to Dowling at this time to send a message that we’re not going to send you checks and support your institution if you’re going to do something that’s so publicly hurting your brand in the community,” he said.

Emily McGuire is the daughter of Iowa Democratic Party chair Andy McGuire. I sought comment from Dr. McGuire because she has been an active supporter and fundraiser for the high school she and all of her seven children have attended. Not speaking on behalf of the Iowa Democratic Party, McGuire sent me this comment:

As a Dowling parent I am struck by certain acts that aren’t in Church teachings seem to be more of a sin than others and I don’t think that is appropriate.

I know we have other teachers with activities that are not in church teachings but we seem focused on this situation.

We should follow Pope Francis’s teachings of tolerance.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. I’ll update this post later, following a walkout some Dowling students and alumni are planning this afternoon.

UPDATE: About 200 people, including current students, alumni, ad supporters, gathered in the rain outside the high school on April 8. The Des Moines Register reported, “Students were allowed to leave class and participate in the event without facing punishment, said Tara Nelson, marketing manager for Dowling.” Click through to view photos from the walkout. Several parents expressed concern about the school’s policy on hiring, but this was the most remarkable quote from Katherine Klingseis’ story:

“I was actually able to come out to my parents last night because we started talking about this,” said Kate Courter, a 16-year-old Dowling junior who identifies as bisexual. “Even if this whole thing was sad that this situation had to happen, there’s some silver-lining, and I’m glad we can all talk about this right now.”

The event ended with a prayer and a call for people to continue the discussion. [Dowling sophomore Grace] Mumm, who helped organize the event, told attendees to use #DowlingCares when talking about the issue on social media.

KCCI’s Ryan Smith reported that about 150 current students participated in today’s protest.

Students led multiple prayers during the event. A handful of Dowling parents also were in attendance. They told KCCI they are proud their children took a stand against what they call an unjust hiring practice.

“Our community should know that we care and that the choices of our school leaders and our diocese leaders don’t directly reflect what we believe as students and it just makes me so happy that we can show our community that,” said Grace Mumm, a sophomore who helped organize the walkout.

A new Facebook group called “Dowling Catholic Alumni, Faculty, and Students Against Discrimination” has more than 1,600 members at this writing.

The LGBT advocacy group One Iowa issued this statement on April 8:


DES MOINES–Earlier this week,KCCI-TV reportedthat Dowling Catholic High School, a private religious school in Des Moines, chose not to hire an openly gay man as a full-time teacher because of his “openness” about his sexual orientation. Since the school is private and considered a religious institution under Iowa law, it is within its legal rights to refuse to hire someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Today at 1:20 pm, Dowling Catholic High School students and alumniare planning a “peaceful walkout”to protest the non-hiring of Tyler McCubbin because he is gay.  

Donna Red Wing, Executive Director of One Iowa, says: “America’s first freedom is freedomforand freedomfromreligion. As a result, it’s important to note that Dowling Catholic High School is within its rights as a private religious school to deny the hiring of Mr. McCubbin. However, we wonder what kind of message this sends to Dowling students who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. As the Catholic Church struggles with these important issues, One Iowa both respects and acknowledges its constitutional rights as well as the dignity and well-being of Dowling LGBT and allied students.

“In addition,” Red Wing says, “we commend the students and alumni at Dowling Catholic High School who have chosen to turn this unfortunate scenario into a learning opportunity for others by staging a peaceful protest. It’s obvious that many students at Dowling Catholic High School are open, affirming and welcoming of the LGBT community, and they are making sure their voices are heard. While we are disappointed with the school’s decision not to hire an openly gay teacher, we hope school officials will nonetheless encourage its students and faculty to be respectful as they begin to engage in civil dialogue around these important issues of LGBT equality.”

SECOND UPDATE: The Des Moines Register quoted other Dowling alumni and parents for this report:

One parent, Libby Muelhaup[t] whose family has a long history with Dowling, said the school’s actions “has given me reservations. I think parents like me who have private concerns should go to the administration and see if we can have those concerns addressed.”

Claire Celsi, who graduated from Dowling in 1984 and works in public relations, said she disagrees with officials’ decision, which likely “will keep young people away from” the Catholic church. […]

“It saddens me that our school treated someone in that manner,” said Brendan Comito, whose son attends Dowling. “I don’t think this is how Christ would act.”

Comito said he will likely continue supporting Dowling financially because of the overall good the school does. But, he added, he hopes school officials realize they “are missing out on a lot of talented people who can have a positive impact” students and others.

“Sometimes things like this happen and good comes out of it,” Comito said.

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  • KCCI also says

    there was an intercom announcement made that “the church makes the distinction between having same-sex attraction, which is not a sin and same-sex actions.”

    So Catholic teaching (at Dowling) suggests God afflicts people with homosexuality but gives them the opportunity to accept a life of repression as penance. Or something.  It’s the “sorry Charlie, tough break” approach to theology.  It’s also tragic, unhealthy, and breathtakingly insensitive.

    Maybe it’s helpful to society the private religious school gets an exception under the law so we can see these awful arguments play out in the light of day.  I for one feel even more grateful for the civil rights law that extends across other employment sectors after seeing the heartless logic used to carry out discrimination.

    • The bishop is confused

      I feel the same way about it, but I am curious why McCubbin started working there in the first place without telling his employer he is gay since they can refuse to employ or terminate him at any time for being gay. I’m even more curious as to why the bishop and the school said what they did because it does not reflect Catholic teachings.

      The bishop’s remarks are very strange; perhaps he means to suggest they wish to be “tolerant” in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” way? It is simply false to say the new job offer was rescinded (and presumably the old job is now closed) because McCubbin is “openly gay” — i.e. getting married in a state where that is legal. The religious objection is not to his homosexuality at all but the presumption that McCubbin is not or does not intend to be celibate for life and therefore is or will be a fornicator in the Christian view. The legal discrimination Iowa allows is specifically for the sexual morality of the Abrahamic faiths which pertains to anyone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. The bishop and the schools in his diocese should be holding their employees to the same standard — no fornicators, no adulterers, no divorced people. Maybe then under evenhanded and just application of their principles the graceful approach of Christ in the gospels to the letter of the law will begin to make sense to more Christians.  

  • another example

    I don’t know why anybody is shocked about Dowling’s decision. Some things simply aren’t going to fly. It’s like a conservative trying to get a job at the University of Iowa College of Law. It isn’t going to happen.

    • how do you figure

      they allow divorced and remarried teachers to remain on the faculty, despite the fact that their second marriage is not recognized by the Catholic Church? “What God has joined let no man put asunder.”

  • Discriminating on the public dime

    Actually more than a dime.  The exceedingly generous tax credit here in Iowa known as the Student Tuition Organization diverts many tax dollars from public schools to church schools.  

    Defenders of STO’s trumpet “school choice” but actually fund something else.

    • Inaccurate information about STOs

      Iowa’s STOs do not “divert tax dollars from public schools to church schools.” They allow tax-free charitable donations to be collected for private schools that may or may not have some type of church affiliation. The donors still pay taxes that fund public schools.

      It would be more accurate to say the state gives a tax credit to people who donate to private schools.

      • Distinction without a difference

        Nearly all private schools that benefit from STOs are religious schools.  

        Sixty-five percent of the money given to an STO can be deducted from the Iowa income tax. It’s NOT a charitable donation.  It comes straight off the bottom line of taxes due.

        That’s diverting tax money.  Given that the Repubs say we can’t afford to increase school funding even by 2%, I’d say it matters that the $12 million siphoned off to Dowling and its cohorts has made a difference.  

        • A real legal and financial distinction

          It’s a fine distinction, but tax credits do not “divert funds.” They change what counts as taxable income, pre-tax. You can only “divert funds” that have already been taken as taxes.  

          • Who does your taxes?

            Do you file your own taxes? I bet not. You are confusing tax deductions and tax credits.

            Deductions (medical expenses or charitable giving or interest on your mortgage) are on Schedule A.  They reduce your income at line 37 before you get to the part where you calculate taxes due.

            After taxes have been calculated on the remaining income (on Iowa line 42), you can get credit on line 50 for paying those taxes even though you don’t proceed to pay them.  This occurred for my new solar panels.  It also occurs when someone points out he has given a wad of dough to Dowling via the local student tuition organization.  He gets to take 65% of it off his already calculated taxes due.  He diverts tax money in the process.

            The legislature understands this even if voters like you don’t.  They put a limit on how much money can be diverted.  People who want to divert money in this way have to get permission from the IA Revenue Dept in advance to make sure the limit has not already been reached.

            The parochial school limit has regularly been reached in recent years.  The schools have lobbied to have it increased.  They have been successful.  Same with the renewable energy tax credit limit.  It was hiked higher last year due to so many folks wanting to “pay their taxes” by putting solar panels in their yards.

            Diverting taxes to solar may be a public benefit because it deceases coal pollution. But the taxpayer can claim as his Iowa tax credit only 15% of what he spent on solar panels. Diverting taxes to Dowling is not so obviously beneficial to the public, but the taxpayer gets to claim 65% of his diversion as if it were taxes.  I call that unconstitutional.  It finances an establishment of religion.

  • The current legal situation

    As I understand it the legal situation at the federal and state level is as follows.

    Even private and religious institutions that receive federal funding (including loans and scholarships) are subject to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 since the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988 which overturned Grove City College v. Bell (1984).

    Federal enforcement of the CRA by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 20011-12 has specifically included LGBT individuals. Iowa’s own Civil Rights Act (section 216 of the Iowa Code) specifically extends its protections to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”  

    In reaction to changes like this and legalized “gay marriage” religious exemptions were added to Iowa’s CRA in 2007. With regard to employment, 216.6(d) currently reads:

    “Any bona fide religious institution or its educational facility, association, corporation, or society with respect to any qualifications for employment based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.  A religious qualification for instructional personnel or an administrative officer, serving in a supervisory capacity of a bona fide religious educational facility or religious institution, shall be presumed to be a bona fide occupational qualification.”

    Whether “gender identity” includes transgender people has become a point of controversy after some schools have discriminated against trans students and faculty for “using the wrong bathroom,” for being trans or undergoing some type of sex reassignment process. Public policy initiatives especially in schools with regard to Title IX have been leading toward specific inclusion of “gender expression” as a separate category or within the definition of “gender identity.” For example, at the end of 2014 the Department of Education indicated that it will be enforcing Title IX as inclusive of “gender identity” to protect transgender students. Religious institutions have again reacted because they have no clear way to discipline or prohibit students and faculty for being or becoming something other than cisgender.

    • ...And how it works out in practice

      What this looks like in actual practice at very conservative private religious schools is explicit compliance with all the state and federal civil rights protections when it comes to students apart from some skirting around Title IX for pregnant students. (Some schools make pregnant students drop all extracurricular activities “for the health of the baby” and make the father do the same if he is also a student, “just to be fair.”)

      These schools will prohibit all harassment, discrimination and bullying in the same way a public school is required to do for students and employees, but when it comes to hiring then sexual orientation will not be among the protected classes due to the religious exemption allowing for discrimination in this area. The schools may not have anything against homosexuality per se, but they can’t discriminate on the basis of their actual beliefs once gay marriage is legal. That is, they believe they are obliged by their religion to discipline students and employees for non-marital sex or perhaps certain sex acts, but the law does not allow them to discriminate a against a sexually active gay person if they are married to their sexual partner. This is really a backdoor protest against gay marriage which prevents it from being recognized as morally upright and legitimate in certain religious communities and their institutions. The legal and cultural precursor for this is Bob Jones University’s policies against romantic inter-racial relationships and their ability to maintain such a rule as long as they were clear of all federal funding sources.

      So currently we have the odd situation where a gay man in deep denial about his identity could be hired by a religious school, then come out as gay and be fired even if he is celibate and simultaneously protected from harassment on the basis of his sexual orientation and gender expression.

  • The Great Satan

    The Church is the Great Satan to gay sympathizers’. It must be discredited if not destroyed.

    If we can’t have moral leadership from a church what good is it?

    BTW Matt McCoy is a nasty man. Being gay doesn’t change that. Not surprisingly being gay is all he needs to bring to the table according to some Catholics.

    Church membership, attendance and schools are choices. What is amazing is the church has a long standing position on this issue. Parents had to know that when they sent their children to Dowling. NOW they’re offended. How…shallow.

    • don't know where you are coming from

      Andy McGuire wasn’t trying to discredit the church–she specifically said people should follow Pope Francis’ teachings.

      Please explain why Dowling allows divorced and remarried teachers to remain on faculty. Obviously the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize their divorces but has no problem paying them to teach the children.