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Indiana Catholic school that fired teacher over same-sex marriage got $1.1M from state last year

Posted at 11:43 AM, Jun 27, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — The private Catholic high school that fired one of its teachers because they are in a same-sex marriage received more than $1.1 million of public money in the form of scholarship vouchers.

Cathedral High School announced Sunday it fired a teacher who is in a same-sex marriage after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis threatened to revoke the school's official Catholic status and its financial support.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, Cathedral received $1,136,258.73 last school year in public money through the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program.

How the Program Works

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program provides state money to offset tuition costs at schools across Indiana. To qualify, students must live in Indiana and be ages 5-22. There are then eight different options, or "tracks" a student can qualified for, depending on various measurements. For example, there is a sibling track, meaning a student's brother or sister received a scholarship the previous year.

A family's income level is also a factor when determining who gets the scholarship money. But the specific school is responsible for determining eligibility. The amount the student receives to attend the school is based on a state-created funding formula, but it could be as much as the school's tuition and fees.

The money technically goes to each student's family, but it's tied to a specific school. If the student stops going to that school, they can't use the scholarship money at a different school. The schools participating in the program may not discriminate against a student based on race, color or national origin.

Cathedral, Brebeuf Jesuit and Roncalli

A few days before Cathedral's announcement, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School was faced with the same option — fire its teacher in a same-sex marriage or lose its Catholic classification. Brebeuf Jesuit chose the latter.

"We really just tried to look at it in terms of our community," Brebeuf Jesuit principal Greg VanSlambrook said. "Our decision trying to do the right thing by our teacher and by our community."

After the school's decision, it can no longer use the name "Catholic," and will no longer be identified or recognized as a Catholic institution.

Both Cathedral and Brebeuf Jesuit are in the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, meaning they get money from the state to accept the lower-income students.

Over the last three school years, Cathedral has received $3,457,077.31 in scholarship vouchers from the state, according to data provided by the Indiana Department of Education. Over that same timeframe, Brebeuf Jesuit has received $1,137,056.03 in scholarship vouchers.

Last year, Roncalli High School placed its guidance counselor on administrative leave after it was discovered she was in a same-sex marriage.

Backlash from State Lawmakers

There is no mechanism in place to stop Cathedral from receiving public money. Two Democratic Indianapolis state lawmakers, one in each chamber, tried during the last session. Rep. Dan Forestal and Sen. J.D. Ford have pushed to include language in state law that would prevent voucher money from going to schools that discriminate against a staff member based on their sexuality, gender identity, race and many other factors.

In Ford's bill, schools in the program would have to annually submit copies of teachers' contracts or other documentation, to prove they're not discriminating. His bill died without getting a hearing. Ford said he was told it was a busy session and the bill didn't meet the priorities of the Committee on Education and Career Development.

"People are talking about it," Ford said. "My constituents are talking about it, which means I have to talk about it."

Both lawmakers have a personal stake in what's happened with these Indianapolis schools. Forestal is a Roncalli alumnus and Ford is the first openly LGBTQ state lawmaker.

"I think I have a duty to speak up on behalf of the folks this is happening to," Ford said.

He also introduced an amendment into the state budget, to essentially do the same as the bill would've. But the amendment was defeated. Ford also said schools that don't receive public money can do what they want, but things change when state funding gets involved.

"If you are going to do that, that's fine, I'm still going to have an issue with it," Ford said. "It just wouldn't be in my purview as a state legislator. If you want to go ahead and raise the funds and that's what you want to do. … But because of the fact that they are receiving public, taxpayer dollars that come directly from the state budget, that's where I have an issue with that."

Ford said he will continue to push the issue in the 2020 legislative session, potentially introducing a similar bill.

This story was originally published by Matt McKInney on WRTV in Indianapolis.