Catholic school fired unmarried woman after Helena diocese received anonymous letter.
HELENA, Mont. — More than 20,000 people from across the USA have called on the Catholic diocese here to reverse its decision to fire an unmarried middle school teacher who is pregnant.
Supporters delivered a petition Thursday to Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, calling the Jan. 10 decision to fire Shaela Evenson of Butte Central Elementary-Junior High School hypocritical.
"Firing an unmarried teacher for becoming pregnant is cruel and hypocritical," said the petition from Faithful America, a social justice group that says it is dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right. "Give Shaela Evenson her job back, and start taking Pope Francis' words about love and healing more seriously."
The school fired Evenson, a literature and physical education teacher for eight years, after the diocese received an anonymous letter informing administrators that she was having a child out of wedlock. The Catholic Church teaches that sex between a man and a woman is reserved for marriage and condemns abortion a grave evil.
Aaron Viles, Faithful America deputy director, said the organization did not consult Evenson before taking action on her behalf.
"This petition came from the staff of Faithful America," Viles said Thursday. "We saw her story and were inspired to take action."
The organization's initial goal was 15,000 signatures; almost 22,000 were recorded online Friday afternoon. MoveOn.org has a duplicate petition on its website that has received almost 900 signatures. A friend on gofundme.com also is raising money for Everson, who is in her eighth month of pregnancy.
Firing an unmarried teacher for becoming pregnant is cruel and hypocritical. ... Start taking Pope Francis' words about love and healing more seriously.
Faithful America petition
Susan Hawthorne, a friend of Evenson, and Margaret Rankin, a longtime member of the Helena Diocese, delivered the petition to Thomas' office at the chancery near the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Rankin, a parishioner at St. Teresa's Catholic Church in Whitehall, Mont., who also graduated from the diocese's Carroll College, said she didn't expect the petition to have much of an influence on the church.
"The only way that change could be made is if (Pope) Francis himself came and asked for that change to be made, and I doubt that would happen," she said.
The diocese encompasses 21 counties and parts of two others in western Montana and ministers to almost 45,000 parishioners. More than 1,000 children are enrolled in a half dozen elementary and secondary schools in Browning, Butte, Kalispell and Missoula; Carroll College here has more than 1,500 students.
The Helena Diocese filed for bankruptcy protection Jan. 31 as part of a proposed $15 million settlement for more than 350 victims who say clergy sexually abused them for decades while the church covered it up.
Thomas was not at his office to receive the petition about Evenson, but diocese spokesman Dan Bartleson took the missive and signatures and said the bishop would take the matter under advisement.
Bartleson said he did have time to discuss the matter briefly with Thomas before Thursday's developments.
"At this time it's unlikely, right now, that he would reverse the decision that was made in Butte," Bartleson said.
In a written statement handed out to reporters, Thomas said Pope Francis in January asked Catholic educators to "give uncompromising and unambiguous witness to church teaching and defend themselves from all efforts to dilute their Catholic identity."
"I am deeply saddened by these recent events, and caught between the values of upholding the Catholic identity of our schools while desiring to provide pastoral outreach and understanding to the teacher," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, there are no easy answers or facile solutions."
The diocese has declined to comment on Evenson's firing, citing her right to privacy.
Evenson declined to comment and referred questions to her lawyer, Brian Butler of Cincinnati.
Butler said Evenson is pursuing administrative relief and all employers, including religious organizations, have to follow state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
"There are state and federal laws that specifically protect women from discrimination because they are pregnant," Butler said.
Evenson is not Catholic and never has been, her lawyer said.
"Besides being an outstanding educator and an inspiration to her young students, Shaela is in a long-term, committed relationship, said Evenson's friend who is raising money on gofundme.com, Jen Hensley. "This pregnancy is hard fought and very much wanted."
In June, in a case Butler described as having "nearly identical" circumstances to Evenson's firing, a federal jury found the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati discriminated against a Catholic school teacher fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination.
The jury awarded Christa Dias more than $170,000 in an anti-discrimination lawsuit.Butler's firm represented Dias in that case.
"These cases are nearly identical. She (Dias) was not Catholic, and she didn't teach any religion," Butler said. "She decided to have a child, and when the school found out she was pregnant, she was terminated."