CINCINNATI – Even as state after state legalizes same-sex marriage, and Pope Francis counsels mercy for those in “irregular” situations, Catholic schools and hospitals are cracking down, firing (or threatening to fire) unmarried couples living together, women using in-vitro fertilization, and gays and lesbians – as well as those who support them.

From Massachusetts to Montana, Catholic employees who violate Church doctrine or teachings are finding themselves increasingly in the crosshairs of organizations struggling to maintain what they believe are hallmarks of a strong Catholic identity.

But some employees are fighting back, refusing to sign contracts that contain so-called morality clauses, or filing lawsuits to get their jobs back.

Here in Cincinnati, for example, the archdiocese asked 2,800 teachers in its 114 Catholic schools to sign a contract for the current school year that includes a provision that the employee “refrain from any conduct or lifestyle” that is “in contradiction to Catholic doctrine or morals.”

That prohibited conduct includes “public support of or publicly living together outside marriage, public support of or sexual activity out of wedlock, public support of or homosexual lifestyle,” as well as support or use of abortion, surrogacy, artificial insemination, and “public membership in organizations whose mission and message are incompatible with Catholic doctrine or morals.”

In addition, the contract reclassifies instructors as teacher-ministers, in part to stop successful lawsuits from employees terminated because of morality issues. A 2012 Supreme Court decision allows religious communities to use the designation of “minister” to skirt anti-discrimination laws and fire employees without having to show cause.

It was all too much for Richard Hague, an English instructor and published poet who hoped to teach for 50 years at Purcell Marian, a Catholic high school in a working-class Cincinnati neighborhood.

Hague and other teachers said the language in the new contract surprised them. Previous contracts instructed teachers not to violate Catholic teaching, but left the interpretation of that up to the teachers.

The archdiocese said the new language simply provides specifics about the kind of behavior it had always expected from its employees.

“In several instances in which people were disciplined for violating the [previous] contract, they said, ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t realize that was against Catholic teaching,’” said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the archdiocese.

“This was a gut-wrencher for me,” the 67-year-old Hague said. “With the specificity of the language, I have to imagine a bunch of lawyers sitting around with the archdiocese thinking up in detail what they’re going to say you can’t believe and what you can’t do.”

Hague, who is married with grown children, wrote in his resignation letter that he felt signing the contract would force him to turn his back on gay students.

“I simply cannot believe that Jesus would require me to condemn my friends, nor that Jesus would require me to report any of my colleagues who supported, even loved, gay persons, nor do I believe for a moment that Jesus would punish me for my earlier ministry,” he wrote.

He retired after 45 years.

Cincinnati is not alone.

  • In the northern Indiana diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, a federal judge recently ruled that a lawsuit filed by a teacher who was fired because she tried to get pregnant through in-vitro fertilization could move forward, despite an appeal by the diocese. The trial is scheduled to start Dec. 16.
  • Parishioners protested the firing of a gay church music director, Colin Collette, from a suburban Chicago parish in Inverness in July after the pastor learned the director had posted news of his engagement on Facebook. His supporters argued that his sexual orientation did not diminish his music skills, and a church cantor quit in protest. On Thursday, Collette filed human rights complaints with the Chicago division of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Cook County Commission on Human Rights.
  • In Missouri, an employee at a Kansas City parish food pantry was fired in May after her marriage to her wife was included in a newspaper story about her community involvement. She sued the diocese in July.
  • A Catholic school in Butte, Montana, fired an unmarried English and gym teacher in January, also for using artificial insemination. She filed suit in August.
  • A job offer for a food services director was rescinded by a Massachusetts Catholic high school in January when it learned the chosen candidate listed his husband as his emergency contact.
  • In Honolulu, Cleveland, and Oakland, teachers at Catholic schools were asked to sign contracts with morality clauses similar to those in Cincinnati.
  • Nationally, some Catholic leaders co-signed a letter to President Obama in July seeking a broad religious exemption that would allow them to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The Church is grappling with changes outside the United States as well.

  • In Germany last month, courts ruled in favor of a Catholic hospital that fired a doctor for remarrying after divorce. It said the legal system there “cannot override the Church’s conception of itself.”
  • In June, the European Court for Human Rights ruled in a split decision that the Church has a right to fire and hire based on its beliefs. The ruling upheld a Spanish Catholic school’s 1997 decision to fire a former priest who spoke out against mandatory celibacy for priests.
  • A gay volunteer at a Catholic aid organization in England said he was told in May he was not welcome to help any longer because of blog posts he published that questioned Church teaching.

To be sure, many Catholics support the organizations’ actions. Some of those who attended the parish meeting in Inverness outside Chicago about the fired music director — who received a standing ovation — said homosexuality was not natural and therefore unacceptable.

Todd Naumann, a history teacher at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, pointed out that the Catholic Church is very clear in its teaching. “When you agree to work at a particular organization, hopefully there’s buy-in about what that organization is all about,” he said.

But others held protest rallies and erected billboards around the city asking if Pope Francis — whose welcoming language has heartened gay and divorced Catholics — would sign the new contract.

Andriacco, the archdiocesan spokesman, rejected the notion that the archdiocese is at odds with the pope.

“The archdiocese’s position is the Church’s position,” he said. “It’s the Church’s position under Pope Francis, it’s the Church’s position under Pope Benedict, it’s the Church’s position under St. John Paul II.”

The new language in the Cincinnati contract that added “minister” to a teacher’s title was the result of legal advice to the archdiocese, in part because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that broadened what’s known as the “ministerial exception.”

In Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, all nine justices said religious communities could decide on their own, without government interference, which employees to classify as ministers, and thus be freed from certain non-discrimination laws. Ministers can be fired without cause, and the boundaries of who counts as a minister are increasingly porous.

Laypeople who hold some parish jobs such as music directors and directors of religious education have traditionally been viewed as ministerial in nature because they meet with parishioners or play a visible role in worship.

In other roles, the ministry aspects are less obvious, but religious organizations have used the same kind of exemptions anyway: The food pantry employee in Kansas City, Missouri, for example.

Catholic schoolteachers, especially, are increasingly designated as ministers. Even subjects that don’t seem inherently religious — computer science or math, for example — now are classified as foundational in passing on the faith.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati said the language in its new contract is meant to clear up confusion about what it means to work for a Catholic school in a “teacher-minister” role.

“We’ve always felt that they’re ministers, even if they’re not Catholic,” Andriacco, the spokesman, said. “I know some teachers who are not Catholic who consider themselves to be ministers of the Church because they’re extensions of the Church’s ministry.”

However, the designation also could help the archdiocese avoid the kind of lawsuits it faced earlier this decade, both by designating teachers as ministers and explicitly stating prohibited conduct. A computer teacher who was not Catholic was let go in 2010 after using in-vitro fertilization; she won a $171,000 judgment in federal court last year, testifying she did not know Church teaching prohibits IVF. A first grade teacher fired in 2011 for becoming pregnant settled out of court in November, 2013 for an undisclosed amount.

“It would be disingenuous to assert that the legal situation and lawsuits were not a factor [in changing the contract], but it would be equally untrue to say it was the only factor,” Andriacco said.

“The contract is a legal document in response to a legal situation; it is not a pastoral document,” he said. “It is not the only aspect of our relationship with our teachers, and it’s not the only way in which we’re trying to bolster the Catholic identity of our schools.”

Others have pointed out that the guidelines deal almost exclusively with sexual and reproductive issues — there are no penalties for failing to attend Mass or publicly advocating for war, for example. Andriacco said that’s the result of societal norms.

“They are the issues in which the Church tends to be most counter-cultural, so therefore they are the issues in which there tends to be some friction between an individual’s behavior and even beliefs in contradiction to the Catholic Church teaching,” he explained.

It is unclear how many teachers and other employees of Catholic institutions have lost their jobs. The Catholic Church in the United States is largely decentralized. A bishop has complete control over his diocese and the parishes within it, usually including the parochial schools. But many other schools run by religious orders, as well as hospitals, nonprofits, and colleges and universities, are usually exempt from diocesan employment policies. There is no system for collecting data, and as a result, there are no exact figures for the number of employees fired for engaging in or supporting activities that clash with Catholic teaching. Policies may vary diocese-by-diocese, school-by-school.

Bob Shine, young adult and social media coordinator for New Ways Ministry, a pro-gay Catholic group, estimates that since 2008, more than 40 employees have been fired from Catholic institutions because of their sexual orientation or public support for same-sex marriage, about half in 2014 alone.

According to the Cincinnati archdiocese, officials know of nine teachers who resigned instead of signing the contract, although they acknowledge there could have been more who did not provide a reason for their departure.

Timothy A. Garry Jr., a Cincinnati lawyer whose three children all attended Catholic schools, says the loss of those teachers has damaged the schools.

“The schools aren’t as good as they were last year at this time because of this contract. It’s just that simple,” he said. He volunteered to represent the Parent Teacher Association at the Nativity School in Cincinnati when news of the contract broke in March; however, his request to meet with the archbishop was declined.

He said teachers have lost legal rights under the contract’s “vague” language.

“ ‘Publicly living together outside of marriage,’ ” he said, quoting the contract. “That would prohibit me from doing what I did after college, which was living with one of my rowing buddies. I mean, that’s crazy, but technically, that’s a violation of the contract.”

Mike Moroski, an administrator at Purcell Marian who posted on his personal blog last year that he supported same-sex marriage, was fired after he refused the archdiocese’s demand that he remove the post. He remains baffled.

“The frustrating part is that this religion that taught me to always stick up, under any circumstances, for the underdog, for the people who are getting pushed around, is the one that terminated a job that I really loved and enjoyed because I did just that,” Moroski said. “That still doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Ellen Euclide, the director of programs for the Chicago-based Church reform group Call To Action, said these cases of firings are nothing new, but with the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, they are hitting the public consciousness.

“I think the Church is dealing with the fact that it’s behind the times,” she said. “Most workplaces were don’t-ask-don’t-tell 40 years ago, and now we have a lot of people who can go to work who can talk about their same-sex partner without fear.”

But the challenges facing Catholic workers extend beyond morality issues, she said.

“A new priest comes in, he doesn’t really need a reason to fire you,” she said. “The Church has always been a big proponent of rights of workers in other areas, but not so much on the rights of their own employees.”

Many of those opposed to the new Cincinnati contract said the archdiocese acted unilaterally, without consulting teachers or parents. In response to that criticism, the archdiocese is forming an advisory body of 11 teachers to meet with the superintendent of Catholic schools about a range of issues.

“We don’t expect to see any major change in the morality clause, but maybe the teachers would have some different approach that we would be interested in adopting,” Andriacco said.

Hague, the English teacher who resigned rather than sign the contract, said he doesn’t believe the advisory committee will transform how the archdiocese operates.

“They should be more empathetic,” he said. “They should have more channels of communication open between themselves and their employees.” In the end, the Church has the right to hire whomever they want, he said, but “it also has the right to be wrong.”