Monica Toro Lisciandro said she felt demeaned after Covenant Christian school insisted she teach one last class to ‘pass the baton’
A Florida teacher has attacked the “hypocrisy” of a private Christian school that fired her for being gay, then insisted she stick around to teach one more class after giving her a lecture about the sin of homosexuality.
Monica Toro Lisciandro said her summary dismissal by the head of the Covenant Christian school in Palm Bay highlights a lack of workplace protections in Florida for LGBTQ people before a landmark supreme court decision on the issue expected by next spring.
Only 21 states currently have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The 37-year-old drama teacher and dance studio owner said she felt shamed and demeaned by the accusatory tone of the school’s head, Lorne Wenzel, and assistant principal, Shannon Schrope, during a meeting convened following a parent’s complaint.
“I don’t talk this way, but they said: ‘There are allegations you’re in a relationship with a woman, you attend Pride and you host homosexual activities at your studio,’” she said. “I thought, OK, we have a Rainbow Project at the studio that’s for kids looking for a safe space, and for volunteering in the community. That’s what they meant by homosexual activities.
“It was very much like I was dirty, I was bad. So I said: ‘Yes, it’s true.’ And they said: ‘You can’t work here.’ They spoke about sin and how they wouldn’t bring somebody in who was cheating on their spouse, and that if I didn’t engage in homosexual activity I could still teach there. I was waiting for them to tell me I was going to hell.”
Lisciandro, who has been in a relationship with her partner, Natalia Dick, 38, for more than a year, said she was in tears by the end of the meeting and offered to hand in her classroom keys and computer.
“They said: ‘Oh no, we want you to teach today. We want you to pass the baton to the new teacher to avoid embarrassment for you, and to keep the school’s reputation intact.’ It was going to be this whole theme about why I was leaving, you know, some personal stuff, this, that and the other.”
Initially at least, the school, which has 283 fee-paying students from kindergarten to high school, did not tell parents the reason for the abrupt departure of Lisciandro, who taught drama classes part-time for three years.
“I am sorry to say that for personal reasons Mrs Lisciandro is not able to continue teaching our musical theater class,” Wenzel wrote in an email.
But after Florida Today published a story about the dismissal, Wenzel issued a statement, reported by NBC, confirming he had fired her because she was gay.
“Covenant Christian school requires that all employees must agree to and model our position on human sexuality, which is based on the biblical teaching that asks all Christ followers to abstain from any sexual activities outside of a one-man, one-woman marriage,” he wrote.
Lisciandro, however, claimed the school conveyed no such policy when she was hired.
“They never said that. They lost their drama teacher and said they were really in a bind and needed someone to come in and direct it. Now they say you can’t be Christian and hold a position of leadership in the school if you’re gay,” she said.
A “non-discrimination policy” on the school’s website states it “does not discriminate on the basis or race, color, or national or ethnic origin”.
A Florida Today story from May about the state’s taxpayer dollars supporting private religious schools refers to a student handbook, since removed from the school’s website, which stated that students who are homosexual are subject to expulsion.
“In their statement it’s like we affirm everyone, we value everyone. But you can’t work here if you’re gay, so you really don’t affirm me,” Lisciandro said. “If I can’t teach children, if I’m a good teacher but I can’t teach children just because I’m gay, then you don’t affirm my worth. It’s so hypocritical.
“Before I came out two years ago I was almost suicidal. I was worried I was going to ruin everything and everybody’s lives. I was married to a man and I have three kids. I’ve done a lot of work loving myself and accepting myself, then in that moment, in that meeting, it took me back to those feelings. If I felt that kind of shame as an adult who spent years coming to terms with everything, I can only imagine how students would feel.”
With no legal protections in place in Florida, Lisciandro said she could not fight her dismissal, but wanted to prevent the same thing happening to somebody else. “If it can help someone, that’s the reason for speaking out,” she said.
Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, said the case is proof of the need for legal protection for LBGTQ workers.
“It’s outrageous that in 2019 anybody in Florida, or anywhere, is fired for being who they are,” he said.
“We live in a moment when the supreme court has ruled definitively in support of marriage equality but, where there are no local protections against discrimination, people can put a picture of their legal married partner, their husband or wife, on their desk and be fired for it.
“Or, in the case of Monica, go to a Pride event and stand with their community, and come into work the next day and be told that they’re immoral and lose their livelihoods because of it.”
Saunders said his group has been trying for years to get protections for LBGTQ workers through Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, and would try again next year.
According to Step Up for Students, a state-approved not-for-profit group, 118 of Covenant Christian’s 283 enrolled students have their tuition fees of up to $7,734 annually met by Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Additionally, the school also accepts taxpayer-funded scholarships from two other state programs, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“The legislature could act tomorrow and say that if you are a private religious school receiving public education dollars it’s illegal for you to discriminate against teachers and students,” Saunders said.
Source: The Guardian
Author: Richard Luscombe