A former Catholic high school teacher who says he was stripped of his job for marrying his gay partner soon after same-sex marriage was made legal in California says in new court papers that he did not know the church’s stance toward homosexuals until he was fired.
Kenneth Bencomo and his partner, Christopher Persky, met in April 2003, and were among a wave of same-sex couples who married after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2013 cleared the way for gay weddings to resume in California for the first time since 2008. He was fired from St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora in July 2013, less than two weeks after marrying Persky.
Bencomo, now 49, sued St. Lucy’s in March 2014, alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy, violation of the state Labor Code and breach of contract. Attorneys for the school have filed a motion in Los Angeles Superior Court asking that the lawsuit be dismissed on grounds the school was founded by a Catholic-affiliated organization and has immunity from Bencomo’s claims.
Bencomo’s lawyer, Howard Rosen, maintains in his court papers that the school’s argument is a “misguided application of the ministerial exception.”
Bencomo was raised Catholic and graduated from Damien High School, a Catholic all-male school in La Verne. He was asked during a deposition about his knowledge of how the Catholic Church viewed gays.
“So is it your testimony that at the time you took the job at St. Lucy’s, you had no idea what the Catholic Church’s stance was regarding being gay?” Bencomo was asked by a defense attorney.
“Correct,” Bencomo replied. “I had no idea.”
Asked when he learned about the church’s position on gays, Bencomo said. “After I was terminated. Someone — I don’t know who it was — said, `It’s OK to be gay, you just can’t act on it’ is what they told me.”
In response to a follow-up question, Bencomo said he did not believe the information he was given represented the church’s official viewpoint concerning gays.
“Because I grew up, you know — that the Catholic Church was a welcoming place and that God loves all his children,” Bencomo said. “And I’m one of his children, and I don’t do anything wrong. I don’t break the law. He made me this way and why … would this be wrong?”
Bencomo also said he also was unaware of the church’s anti-abortion perspective until after St. Lucy’s hired him. Asked about the circumstances that led to him learning that information on the job, he replied, “Probably … I don’t know. Conversations in the faculty room again.”
Queried whether he understood that by signing his contract that the school intended to hire teachers who would instruct based on the teachings of the gospels and the Catholic Church, Bencomo replied that when he was hired in 1998 he thought that it meant “being a good — a good Catholic person that would promote truth, honesty, respect for others. That’s what I believed number one to be.”
Asked whether anyone at St. Lucy’s told him how the Catholic philosophy of the school was to be integrated in the subject he taught, Bencomo answered, “I was never told how to implement the Catholic philosophies in my subject areas.”
Questioned whether he ever did anything to acquaint himself with current Catholic moral teaching while working at St. Lucy’s, Bencomo replied, “No.”
Bencomo said the school’s vice principal talked to him about his marriage to Persky during a meeting at the school.
“She asked me if I knew what I was doing and if I knew that I was violating my contract,” Bencomo said. The vice principal also said that the wedding was “all over Facebook and the newspapers,” Bencomo said.
The vice principal asked him, “Why did it have to be so public?” according to Bencomo. “And she said … because I got married, I am jeopardizing the school’s Catholic standing and that she has to terminate my employment.”
Bencomo said he became emotional.
“I put my head in my hands,” Bencomo said. “I started crying.”
Bencomo said the vice principal first offered him $41,000, then increased the amount to $63,000.
In his court papers, Bencomo’s attorney states that his client was offered the money “in exchange for his silence.”
Bencomo taught studio art, dance, English and yearbook classes, and Persky regularly attended St. Lucy’s events with the plaintiff, according to the suit, which is scheduled for trial June 27.
—City News Service
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