A teacher at a Catholic school in Southern California suddenly was fired after a photo of him marrying his same-sex partner of 10 years appeared in a local newspaper, according to the teacher's attorney.
Ken Bencomo, 45, was head of the English department, yearbook advisor, dance coach and a mentor at St. Lucy's Priory High School in Glendora. He worked at the all-girls school for 17 years.
Bencomo and his partner were among the first same-sex couples to marry in San Bernardino County last month after the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to uphold Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
They’ve been together for 10 years.
The couple had a commitment ceremony in 2006, but that didn’t grant them the same rights as a married couple, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reported. For example, Bencomo wasn’t allowed to visit his partner in the hospital after surgery because he wasn’t considered a relative, the news outlet reported.
Bencomo married his longtime partner on July 1. He was fired from St. Lucy's July 12.
His attorney said school administration explicitly told Bencomo they were firing him because he "got married and it was in the paper, and it violated church teachings."
"He goes from one of the happiest days of his life to a nightmare," said Patrick McGarigle, Bencomo's attorney.
Current students and alumnae have emerged in support of the former teacher.
“I think the most important of Catholic values is that they teach to love and this isn't an act of love,” Brittany Lettleton, a former St. Lucy’s student, told NBC4.
“I can say for sure if Jesus Christ were here on Earth today, he wouldn't be firing Ken Bencomo.”
More than 1,500 supporters as of Thursday have joined a Facebook group called “St. Lucy’s community speaks out for Mr. B.”
The group asks members to write letters to school leaders "notifying them of your disappointment in their recent decision to terminate a valuable leader of our community."
An online petition on Change.org has garnered more than 9,000 signatures in support of Bencomo.
A rally outside the school is set for Aug. 8.
"St. Lucy's taught us to be respectful, ambitious, and classy; it is imperative that we display those standards,” the page reads. “Mr. Ken Bencomo should not lose his livelihood. Be a part of the change."
News of Bencomo’s firing comes days after Pope Francis' comments on homosexuality made him seem more accepting of gays and lesbians than his predecessors.
"If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" said Pope Francis, who leads the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics.
The school released this statement, saying it could not comment on employees, but emphasized it is upholding its educational mission in the "tradition of the Catholic faith":
"St. Lucy's Priory High School is founded in the Roman Catholic tradition and is dedicated to providing a quality college preparatory education for young women. As a Benedictine school, St. Lucy's is a community for those who wish to express Christian values in education and develop personal and academic excellence.
"We respect and protect privacy interests and, to be respectful of those involved, the School does not comment on confidential employment matters or matters which may involve litigation.
"St. Lucy's Priory High School wishes to reassure all in our community that upholding its mission to educate students in the tradition of the Catholic faith is of paramount importance."
McGarigle said school staff and students knew of Bencomo’s sexuality, and that his client often brought his partner to school events.
Nearly two months before he was fired, Bencomo renewed his contract with the school, McGarigle said.
The attorney said the school doesn’t have to "acknowledge the mistake, but make a fair and reasonable proposal to resolve this."
"If the school forces (Ken Bencomo) to file legal action, to rectify what occurred, then he will," McGarigle added.
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