On the list of controversies that seem tailor-made for public outcry, it would be tough to think of one better than: "fired a woman on her honeymoon for no other reason than because she chose the person she loves over her job." With a Twitter-friendly headline like that, you don't even really need to know that Mount St. Mary Academy is a Catholic school, or that the couple involved are lesbians. That's the kind of story that gets folks fired up, no matter what the religion or genders.
Tippi McCullough is a popular 29-year-veteran English teacher who has taught at Little Rock's all-girl Mount St. Mary Academy for the past 15 years. She also happens to be a lesbian. She's been in a committed relationship with her partner, Pulaski County deputy prosecuting attorney Barbara Mariani, for 14 years — a fact that both McCullough and Mariani insist was known and accepted by the staff and administration at the school. On Oct. 16, just before McCullough and Mariani were to be wed in a legal civil ceremony in New Mexico, where same-sex marriage is legal, Mariani said they received a phone call from an employee at the school, warning them that if they got married, McCullough would be fired.
They married anyway. Around 45 minutes after the ceremony, McCullough received another call from Mount St. Mary principal Diane Wolfe, telling McCullough that she had violated a morality clause in her contract by wedding Mariani. She was given the choice of resigning or being fired.
In her resignation letter of Oct. 18, McCullough mentioned the "Mercy Values" espoused by the Sisters of Mercy order that founded the school, telling Wolfe that she was "greatly disappointed that the powers who control the hiring and firing at Mount St. Mary have taken this stance which seems to be in direct opposition to the Mercy Value recognizing 'The Intrinsic Worth and Dignity of Each Person.' "
Earlier, in a response to a theologian who had written her to question the firing, Wolfe had said that her hands were tied on the issue once McCullough entered into a civil union "whereby a public document was generated."
"Do you honestly think a lowly high school principal of 531 girls would take this kind of monumental action on a whim or based on my 'conservative views?' " Wolfe wrote. "You and many others are making grandiose assumptions ... [P]erhaps you need to take this up with the Catholic Church who made this decision. I am contractually bound by the parameters set forth by the church teachings." Wolfe closed the letter by saying that while many have accused her of cowardice for the firing, she asked the writer to question if it took "moral courage to carry out and uphold the tenets of the church."
Wolfe has not returned a phone call seeking further comment. In response for a request for comment, a spokesman for the Diocese of Little Rock sent an email saying: "At this time the Diocese of Little Rock has no plans to issue its own statement other than to indicate that, like the Mount, the Diocese does not disclose confidential personnel information unless it is properly authorized."
On Oct. 22, the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBT rights group, held a support rally and press event at Little Rock's South on Main restaurant, with McCullough and Mariani making their first public appearance since the firing. HRC was the first to report on the issue, and has gathered over 50,000 signatures from those protesting the firing, which they planned to deliver to Mount St. Mary Academy President Karen Flake and Wolfe.
Addressing a crowd of more than 100 supporters, HRC president Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native, said that McCullough and Mariani's relationship was "no secret to her fellow teachers," and that Mariani was "part of the community at Mount St. Mary's."
Of the school's firing of McCullough simply for marrying Mariani, Griffin said: "That's not just wrong, it's morally disruptive. It sends a deeply harmful message to every member of this community, and especially to every Mount St. Mary's student, gay or straight, that leading a responsible life — a good life — isn't enough."
Before reading from online messages from Mount St. Mary students saying that McCullough was an inspiration to them, Griffin said, "principal Wolfe and president Flake are shamelessly and dangerously sending a message that if you're LGBT, you simply don't belong. That kind of harmful message never entered Ms. McCullough's classroom." Pointing out that Pope Francis recently said "who am I to judge?" when asked about LGBT people in an interview, Griffin said, "Principal Wolfe and president Flake's actions prove that they either didn't hear those elegant, Biblically-based words, or they didn't care." He went on to call for the school to publicly apologize to McCullough and Mariani, and institute a school-wide non-discrimination policy that will prevent LGBT teachers from being fired in the future.
Stepping to the microphone, Tippi McCullough read from a prepared statement, saying that learning she had been fired 45 minutes after she was married seemed "shocking and especially cruel." Returning to the school to collect personal belongings the day before had been "one of the hardest days of my life," she said, though she spoke of students and teachers offering their support.
"For 29 years, I've tried to be discreet about my private life, never pushing an agenda in any classroom or school where I've worked," McCullough said. "I just wanted to teach." McCullough said she was devastated by her firing, saying that her first thought was how her commitment to the school "had been reduced to a mere label."
"I most worry about the message this discrimination sends to the young women of Mount St. Mary's," she said. "My only hope is that this acts as a dialogue and progress for equality."
Barbara Mariani fought back tears as she introduced herself by saying: "I'm a spouse to Tippi McCullough," adding that it was the first time she's been able to say that in public.
Mariani said that she and McCullough are very private people who have tried to live their lives "under the radar," which made the controversy especially hard on them.
"What we realized is that silence perpetuates inequality," she said, "and until someone rights that silence," it continues to hurt. Mariani said that while they had discussed the possibility of retribution against them for getting legally married, she said they had believed the school would "continue to exercise just application of that moral code, like they had for the past 14 years" toward the couple.
"Devastated doesn't really describe the last week of emotional ups and downs," Mariani said. "It has been the happiest, the saddest, and the most hopeful week that I've ever gone through." That included, Mariani said, seeing McCullough go from being "the happiest I've ever seen her to two hours of non-stop crying" within 45 minutes. "It was truly horrible," she said. Mariani went on to thank supporters, students and staff members at the school and Catholics who had come forward to say the firing didn't represent their faith. She also thanked her co-workers and her boss, Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, for believing in equality in the workplace.
"No one should ever fear losing their job for being the person God created them to be," Mariani said.
Asked what she'd tell someone who came to her and asked whether they should send their daughter to Mount St. Mary Academy, McCullough said she's "conflicted" about the question, but added: "I would not want my own daughter to go there currently, in this climate, under this leadership ... . It greatly saddens me that I couldn't do that, because I have preached for years that it's the best school that there is, and the best place for a young woman to go to gain confidence and self-esteem and go out into the world and make something of herself."