Morals, Ethics Could Change As Societal Views Shift

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Carla Hale (left) with her attorney, Tom Tootle. Hale was fired from Bishop Watterson High School after the Columbus Diocese said she violated a morals clause.(Photo: Tom Borgerding, WOSU News Reporter)
Carla Hale (left) with her attorney, Tom Tootle. Hale was fired from Bishop Watterson High School after the Columbus Diocese said she violated a morals clause.(Photo: Tom Borgerding, WOSU News Reporter)

Employment contracts have been around for years, but during the past ten years, employers have begun to add morals or ethics clauses. And the recent high-profile case of a fired Bishop Watterson High School teacher turns on her alleged violation of a morals clause. WOSU takes a look at the role of morality clauses in the workplace.

Carla Hale, the former Watterson physical education teacher who gained national attention after she was fired from the Catholic school, had a morals clause in her contract. Such clauses require specific behavior. The Columbus Diocese says Hale violated its moral clause when she included her same-sex partner’s name in her mother’s obituary earlier this year. Hale contends the contract was vague and said nothing about homosexuality.

It’s not just Catholic school teachers who face these kinds of clauses. John Green, director of The Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, says actors, professional athletes and other celebrities are accustomed to signing such clauses.

“So this is not limited exclusively to faith-based organizations that might have a particular view of morality,” Green said. “But these clauses occur much more broadly in a variety of different kinds of contacts where the employer is concerned of the public image or the private behavior of the employee.”

We checked with a couple of Central Ohio’s larger Catholic employers to find out if they require workers to sign such clauses.

Ohio Dominican University declined to say whether it has a morals clause.

Mount Carmel Health does not have a morality clause in any employment contract. In an email Jason Koma stated most workers are at-will and do not have contracts.

University of Virginia Douglas Laycock law professor specializes in church and state issues. Laycock said he’s not surprised Mount Carmel does not have a morals clause. He said, unlike teachers, nurses and hospital staff are not necessarily considered role models.

“I think it’s a much bigger problem for the church if a teacher is violating the church’s ruling and teachings than somebody in a hospital is, no one is likely to know about it. Patients aren’t there all year building a relationship with those employees,” Laycock said.

Laycock noted he hadn’t heard about morals clauses ten years ago.

“My sense is this is a practice that is spreading, at least among Catholic schools, maybe other religious schools, as well.”

We also checked with some of Columbus’ public school systems to see what kind, if any, ethics clauses its teachers are expected to follow.

Most school districts had similar ethics clauses. Reynoldsburg City Schools board policy stated, “the Board expects staff members to conduct themselves in a manner which not only reflects credit to the District, but also presents a model worthy of emulation by students.”

Dublin City Schools expects teachers to “maintain the dignity of the profession by respecting and obeying the law, and by demonstrating personal integrity.”

Morals clauses, particularly those required under religious employers, are becoming more controversial. The Bliss Institute’s John Green says that’s because people’s views about what is appropriate personal behavior is shifting, especially as it relates to homosexuality and even heterosexual co-habitation.

“And as those standards change, one would expect those kinds of contracts to change. In the meantime, there can be an awful lot of controversy. Suppose public opinion is ahead of where the contracts are, and so that’s when a lot of these things end up in court,” Green said. “And the courts are asked to determine whether those voluntary contracts still are acceptable given the change in public opinion.”

And Green said there could be a time when the courts would not uphold a clause that addresses homosexual relationships. And he anticipates a time when faith-based organizations could change their morals clauses for employees who are not ministerial workers.

University of Virginia Douglas Laycock said he thinks the Columbus Diocese would have a strong case under the Ohio Constitution.

“It’s really not too hard to say the religious folks get to make their own rules in religious context and not in secular context. That’s not difficult, it’s just that neither side wants that solution,” Laycock said.

Former Watterson teacher Carla Hale is disputing her firing. Hale’s going through the Columbus Diocese grievance process. And she’s filed a discrimination complaint with a city commission.

  • Melanie P

    How could Ms. Hale say that the contract was vague with it’s moral clause? Homosexuality is immoral.

    • Marlene Green

      It’s not immoral in my church or in my profession, so, it’s your opinion, and maybe you want to examine it for it’s truth value?