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Gay California Catholic teacher's firing sparks online petition

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Catholic high school teacher said he was fired for marrying his gay partner soon after same-sex matrimony was made legal in California, prompting a Web-based push to see him reinstated.

The petition drive in support of English instructor Ken Bencomo on the online petition platform Change.org has gathered over 9,000 signatures from his former students and people as far away as Spain since it was launched earlier this week.

The teacher and his partner were among a wave of same-sex couples who married after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June cleared the way for gay weddings to resume in California for the first time since 2008.

If Bencomo sues, his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, sees it as a potential test case of legal protections some religious institutions assert they have in hiring and firing based on principles of faith.

Bencomo taught at the all-girls St. Lucy's Priory High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora for over 16 years, but was terminated in July, a little more than a week after marrying his longtime partner, McGarrigle said on Thursday.

Brittany Littleton, 23, a former student at St. Lucy's, is leading the online petition, which asks administrators to "reverse this act of prejudice" against her former teacher and "give him his job back."

A Beverly Hills resident and yoga instructor, Littleton said her drive was not meant to tear down St. Lucy's, which she described as pushing students to be "forward thinking."

"It's as much a fight for the school as it is for Mr. Bencomo, but we want them to know we do not stand by this decision and are horrified by it," Littleton said.

Raised Catholic, Bencomo, 45, chaired the school's English department, helped with the yearbook and served as a dance coach, McGarrigle said. School administrators were aware he was in a same-sex relationship, the attorney said.

But just over a week after his July 1 wedding was written up in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, an administrator told Bencomo he was being let go because his marriage was "in public and violated the church's teaching," McGarrigle said.

Sister Helen Dziuk, an assistant principal at St. Lucy's, declined to comment, saying the Benedictine institution wished to "protect the privacy of everyone involved" and that the matter "may involve litigation."

The school later issued a statement saying that while St. Lucy's "does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values."

It added, "These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees."

POPE'S VIEW

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles declined to comment on the grounds that the school is privately run and not under its jurisdiction.

Pope Francis, who was elected in March, told reporters this week on a flight from Brazil that gays should be integrated into society, but that homosexual acts were a sin.

McGarrigle said his client wished to settle out of court, but could file a lawsuit. He said such a case, based in part on the fact that Bencomo's homosexuality had been tolerated at school, may become a legal test of what protections religious institutions have in firing an employee for a same-sex marriage.

Thirteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex unions, with Minnesota and Rhode Island joining that group on Thursday.

"Clearly, he (Bencomo) was terminated because he engaged in a lawful act that the school now believes - or at least asserts - was one step too far," McGarrigle said.

Karl Manheim, a Loyola Law School professor, said a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that religious institutions could not exempt lay employees from workplace protections.

"To the extent that the church is involved in ordinary business operations, and running a school typically is, they're going to be subject to state and federal statutes," he said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Peter Cooney)

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