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Gay married man says Catholic school rescinded job offer

Matthew Barrett, right, and his husband Ed Suplee.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Matthew Barrett, right, and his husband Ed Suplee.

Matthew Barrett thought he had found his dream job.

He had worked in the food industry for more than two decades, and when he was offered a job in July as food services director at Fontbonne Academy, a Roman Catholic-based girls’ prep school in Milton, he quickly accepted.

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But Barrett, 43, said the offer was rescinded only two days later — once the head of school realized Barrett had listed his husband as his emergency contact, according to a complaint he was set to file Thursday with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

“She said the Catholic religion doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, and that was her excuse. She said, ‘We cannot hire you,’ ” Barrett said in an interview in the Boston offices of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which is representing him.

“It just ate me up,” he added.

Barrett’s complaint, which may be the first of its kind in the country, comes at a time when religion-based schools in the increasing number of states where gay marriage is legal have been scrutinizing hiring and employment practices to ensure they conform with the pillars of their faiths.

School administrators have been fired from Catholic schools and universities in Arkansas, California, New York, and Washington, among other states, after marrying their same-sex partners or announcing plans to do so.

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In many cases, the administrators had signed contracts saying they agreed to live their lives according to the schools’ respective religious practices.

Barrett, a Dorchester resident who was raised Catholic, said he was never asked to sign such a contract.

He said he was told by school officials that employees recognize church doctrine, but he believed that meant participating in prayers.

Fontbonne, a secondary school for girls, released a statement saying it does not comment on personnel matters or on pending or threatened litigation.

The school, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, describes itself as being founded upon a “Catholic, Western intellectual and spiritual tradition.”

Barrett’s attorney and other supporters argue that officials at Fontbonne went too far in rescinding its offer for a job that has nothing to do with the school’s religious mission.

“There is a balance between important values, which are religious liberties, and discriminatory practices,” said Bennett Klein, a senior GLAD attorney. “This is a job that has nothing to do with religion . . . and this weighs toward discrimination.”

Massachusetts lists sexual orientation among other characteristics such as race and gender under the state’s antidiscrimination laws. Klein said the state law grants certain exceptions for things like “ministerial” duties, but he argued that it would cross the line to include the position of food services director.

Likewise, he argued, schools across the country have gone too far in firing teachers, music directors, and sports coaches.

“We’re seeing religion-affiliated entities more and more trying to push the line toward discriminating against gay, lesbian, and transgendered people,” he said.

Nancy Shilepsky, a Boston-based lawyer with experience in discrimination cases, added that Massachusetts laws strike a balance of ensuring religious freedoms while prohibiting discrimination.

Shilepsky, who is not affiliated with the case and spoke generally about the facts as recounted by the Globe, said the state Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a religious teacher at a Jewish school would fall under that “ministerial” exception.

“Our Supreme Judicial Court takes a serious look at issues involving religious liberty and at issues involving discrimination,” she said. “They are careful to try to strike the appropriate balance.”

Shilepsky added, however, that employers cannot make a blanket claim that their own rights would be compromised by antidiscrimination laws, saying that such broad-based First Amendment claims are the unsuccessful arguments that employers made when they tried to discriminate against African-Americans after passage of 1960s civil rights laws.

“It really goes to what the employee’s responsibilities are, and whether and to what degree those responsibilities involve religion,” she said.

Under state law, the MCAD could decide whether to conduct an inquiry into Barrett’s complaint. If the commission found probable cause that discrimination occurred, Barrett could also have the option to file a complaint in state civil court.

Fontbonne had a 2013 graduating class of 72 students, and about 22 percent of its student body is not Catholic, according to the school website. Annual tuition is $14,400.

For Barrett, having the job offer rescinded was a surprise.

He had applied for the job, which paid just over $40,000 a year, after finding a posting on Craigslist, he said.

He went for a first interview with a woman who would have been his direct supervisor. Then a second, with her and someone he would have worked closely with. Then a third interview, he said, with the head of school.

“That’s how I felt I had all the qualifications for the job; there’s no question about that,” said Barrett, adding that he had previously worked at small restaurants and popular chain restaurants, and in corporate cafeterias and at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston. He now works as a cook in the Milton public schools.

He said he was offered the Fontbonne job in that third interview. That day, he was asked to fill out standard paperwork for a new employee and he never second-guessed listing Ed Suplee as his emergency contact.

Under “relationship,” he answered “husband.” Barrett and Suplee were married Sept. 29, 2012, in front of 110 family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Two days after the job offer, Barrett said, he received an e-mail asking him to go to the school, saying there was an issue with his employment. That’s when he was told, he said, that the school would rescind the job offer.

“I had all the qualifications,” Barrett said. “That was the job for me.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.

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