“‘Queer bohemian’ chairs theology department at Woodside Priory School”
When the students at Woodside Priory High School in Woodside, CA read that headline published in the California Catholic Daily on March 25, 2014, they knew who it was referring to: Matthew Nelson, the Theology Department Chair, loved for his enthusiasm and the stories he shared with teachers and students.
The article, which has since been taken down but was reposted on March 25, 2014 on angelqueen.org, refers to Nelson as an “active enem[y] of the faith,” right beside a screenshot of a 2011 YouTube video of Nelson teaching in his classroom in front of a rainbow flag.
The article also points to a variety of Facebook posts Nelson allegedly made, most of them regarding marriage equality, as examples of Nelson being an “enemy of the faith.”
One status the article alleges Nelson posted on August 25, 2013 says, “If you oppose marriage equality, you need only look at this video of the Millennial generation shouting the Civil Rights anthem of these contemporary times to know that you are swiftly a dying breed.”
The article also encourages all readers to contact the principals of their local Catholic schools to complain about Nelson teaching at Woodside Priory.
One Woodside Priory student, who we will refer to as “Alex,” claims many students reacted to the article by posting comments backing Nelson and criticizing the article’s homophobic undertones. According to Alex, when Woodside Priory’s Board of Directors met regarding Nelson after the article was published, students were upset that there was administrative intervention but not too concerned about a negative outcome.
“Mr. Nelson has been working at Priory since 2007 and from what I understand there have never been other issues with him in the Archdioceses or Catholic groups,” Alex said in a June 2014 Facebook message. “When this article was posted many people assumed that the administration would deal with the situation and allow Mr. Nelson to keep his job.”
However, on May 17, 2014, Woodside Priory’s Head of School Tim Molak e-mailed all Woodside Priory parents and announced that Nelson would not be returning to Woodside Priory for the 2014-2015 school year. The e-mail, co-signed by the Chair of the Board of Directors, Jami Nachtsheim, and Religious Superior, Farther Martin Mager, O.S.B., insists that Nelson left of his own accord.
“Matthew was given a contract to teach for next year like all our teachers,” the e-mail’s second paragraph states. “However, a few weeks ago he became interested in a teaching opportunity which became available at another school … He has resigned from the Priory effective at the end of this school year.”
In another Facebook message, Alex recalls the surprise that ricocheted through the Woodside Priory community following Molak’s e-mail. “This whole situation was very shocking to parents, students and teachers because Priory has historically been a welcoming place. We have a PRISM club (Gay-Straight Alliance), a diversity club, and we have celebrated Day of Silence and Transgender Day of Remembrance.”
On May 25, 2014, a group of students created a petition on gopetition.com, now signed by 105 students and parents, demanding an explanation for Nelson’s departure from the Woodside Priory administration. The petition also argues that Nelson was pressured to resign because he was outed as gay to the larger Catholic community.
“Absent any explanation to the contrary, it would appear that this anti-gay agenda and, more particularly, the March 25 California Catholic Daily article calling Mr. Nelson ‘an active enem[y] of the faith,’ may have had a significant and regrettable effect on Mr. Nelson’s employment status at Woodside Priory,” the petition states.
Alex also points out in a message that there were rumors that St. Anselm College, the motherhouse of Woodside Priory, threatened to relocate Woodside Priory’s monks if Nelson did not leave.
Woodside Priory declined to comment on both Matthew Nelson’s departure and the larger relationship between the Catholic Church and school policy. However, Woodside Priory’s non-discrimination policy, available online in the 2013-2014 Student Handbook, was revealing.
The policy states, “Priory does not discriminate on the basis of any characteristic protected by law in the administration of its educational policies and requirements; admissions and financial aid programs; athletics and student life activities, or in any other programs, activities, rights, or privileges of students.” The phrase “protected by law” is key, because it highlights the fact that even if Nelson was, as the petition alleges, pressured to resign due to his sexual orientation, Woodside Priory did not violate any laws.
Lambda Legal is a national organization that works to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in court. They are most famous for their role in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated sodomy laws. Their Help Desk stated in a June 2014 e-mail regarding Woodside Priory that they were unable to comment on the specifics of the case.
However, they pointed out that on the whole California does have laws that prohibit employee discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They also emphasized, “Generally speak[ing], the California Education Code applies to public schools and schools receiving state financial assistance or state financial aid.”
Woodside Priory (and most other religiously affiliated independent schools) are exempt from adhering to the California Education Code because they are not considered recipients of state financial assistance or aid.
As the petition created by students at Woodside Priory points out, this is a problem that has affected numerous schools. In particular, the petition references the recent “morality pledge” the Diocese of Oakland, CA required teachers to sign that makes certain actions in a teacher’s personal life not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, such as marrying a partner of the same sex, grounds for dismissal.
Morality pledges for teachers in religiously affiliated high schools are not uncommon.
Marian High School, a Catholic high school outside of Detroit, has been in the news for firing a pregnant gay teacher, Barb Webb, in September 2014 for violating its morality clause.
In an article The Guardian published on September 26, 2014, Webb states that she thinks the school acted after her sexual orientation became public, similar to what some Priory students allege happened to Nelson.
“The administration hired people knowing they were gay but knowing they could choose to keep it private,” Webb said. “Unfortunately, when you want to start a family, you can’t keep it quiet forever.”
Where we draw the line between religious freedom and protecting teachers from discrimination has always been highly contested. Advocates for drawing the line where we make it now—giving religiously—affiliated independent schools exceptions to state laws that protect employees who hold one or more marginalized identities—tend to argue that it is the right of the church to teach religion as they want to, even if that means dismissing teachers who some argue do not embody the teachings of the church.
However, Alex, still a strong supporter of Nelson, vehemently disagrees with that position. “As an American I don’t think that this fits with out values of equality and freedom,” Alex says. “As a Christian I was taught that God loves everyone and I think people need to remember that before they go off and write hateful articles about people who have faced enough opposition already.”