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Gays, Even Christians, Need Not Apply

Jonathan Zeng shares his story of discrimination, as local leaders rally

By Stephen Carter-Novotni · June 13th, 2012 · News
news1_jonathanzeng_jf05Photo: Jesse Fox

It all happened so swiftly. Jonathan Zeng had been offered the job. He was the best man for it — the school had chosen him. Its leaders welcomed him warmly. They shared the same Christian values, it seemed; they shared a love of children and Zeng was ready to start as a music teacher at his new school. 

He’d found out about it all so serendipitously just months before, during an afternoon walk in his downtown neighborhood. He’d casually asked a teacher at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s (CHCA) Armleder School if there were any openings for music teachers and was told no, but to check back at the end of the year. He did, and now he was about to be hired. He’d even be able to walk to work. It seemed like fate.

“The principal offered me the job pending board approval,” Zeng says of a June 1 meeting that concluded two weeks of talks including a teaching demonstration in front of a 3rd grade class March 31. “After my meeting with the board representative and head of the school, again, they were happy to welcome me and asked me to come next week to the teacher’s training seminar.”

Fifteen minutes later, Zeng received a phone call from a board representative asking him to return because, the representative said, something in Zeng’s application was weighing on his mind. 

“I talked in my application about Christ’s unconditional love and how we, as followers of Christ, are to show that love to everyone without judgment,” Zeng says. “Those answers caused him to think that I was gay and so he asked if I was.”

And that’s how the bottom fell out. Zeng says he was shocked that this question came up and asked why it mattered. He was told that the school had a policy against hiring gay teachers. “Or teachers who live a homosexual lifestyle, is, I think, what he said,” Zeng says. 

The distinction of orientation versus practice, which matters to some religious organizations, didn’t matter in this case; Zeng is gay, out, and in a committed relationship. Zeng says his reaction was shock, disbelief and pain.

“This is the first time anyone has specifically asked me that in any sort of employment situation. … I said, ‘I’m sorry your view of Christ’s love is so limited.’ ”

Zeng wrote a letter that weekend, explaining his side of the story and his great disappointment with CHCA. It was intended for the board, but Zeng also sent it to various media as a letter to the editor and it is now easily found online. The results were immediate: national media attention, countless emails and calls from supporters and, later, a letter written to CHCA by Ohio State Representative Denise Driehaus and Cincinnati City Councilman Chis Seelbach, in which they indicated that while CHCA’s actions might have been legal, what it did wasn’t right. Depending on the school’s current tax filing status, the discrimination might be in violation of Cincinnati’s Human Rights Ordinance.

“Religious institutions are exempted and should be exempted,” Seelbach says. “If they are indeed a religious institution, it depends on how their non-profit status was filed. … They say on their website they are a nondenominational school, so we’re looking into exactly what is their legal status.” 

Zeng also cited the term “nondenominational” on the school’s website as an indication and it might be accepting of gays. But nondenominational can mean different things to different people and organizations. To many people, this can sound like many different versions of Christianity are welcome under the same roof. Nondenominational is also a term used by some evangelical Christians who might consider themselves to be quite conservative. 

Seelbach says he’s concerned about the LGBT students and their straight allies at the school and wanted to publicly announce that Cincinnati’s elected leadership does not agree with CHCA’s administration.

“What message does this send them? That gay people are not welcome at this school,” Seelbach says. “I feel very bad for those students. How is it to go to school every day in an environment that has done something like this? To me it’s an injustice not only to discriminate against this person, but also to the kids who are not getting who the administration thought was the best person for the job.”

Driehaus says she also doesn’t believe what happened is fair or right.

“Beyond the fair, moral question involved, if we’re going to allow companies to discriminate, I think it sends a message to people both within the community and outside the community as to what kind of community we are,” Driehaus says. “I think Cincinnati wants to be recognized as a community that embraces diversity.”

CHCA remains tight-lipped about Zeng. The school released a brief statement, saying that it does not discuss individual hiring decisions and that the accounts about the matter it has seen contain inaccuracies.

Zeng has a broad background in education, music and theater. A tenor, he’s worked in the education department of the Cincinnati Opera. Since earning his undergraduate degree in education in 2005, he’s worked in a number of schools. Since that time, he says he’s never concealed the fact that he was gay.

“I’ve been specifically careful in a classroom setting not to make this an issue,” he says. “I have not felt the need to hide that. There are a number of teachers I’ve worked with who have met my partner.”

Zeng still teaches part-time at another parochial school. So far, he still has his job. Though Zeng didn’t go to pains to hide his sexuality at that school, neither did he broadcast it. Now, the entire school knows and Zeng says he doesn’t know if it will become an issue there as it did with CHCA. 

Zeng says the incident has made apparent to him a catch-22 faced by gays who work for religiously oriented institutions: If he mentions his sexuality, he might be dropped from consideration for a job. If he doesn’t, it could come back on him later after he’s been hired.

“My heart goes out to the LGBT students at (CHCA),” Zeng says. “If my experience can persuade members of this community to speak out in support of gay Christians, then maybe we can help people understand that being gay and being Christian aren’t mutually exclusive.”

 
 
 
 

 

 
06.14.2012 at 08:10 Reply

Are you kidding me? How in the world is this even acceptable? I am a conservative, maybe considered a liberal by some, however that is neither here nor there. The injustice of a person being considered as the best man for the job until he is "found out" to be gay is freaking so radical I cannot even begin to undersand it. I just thank God my daughter and her friends don't see it this way. It is why I would say I am certain there is a higher power than myself however, I refuse to call myself a a Christian due to the fact that I don't want to be associated with such a radical group of people. What a bunch of hypicrytical freaks. Yes, I said, FREAKS!!!! WTF???

 

06.16.2012 at 08:06

Being gay has been considered a sin for thousands of years by people of the Jewish, then Christian faith.  All of the sudden, we're now a bunch of bigots for believing it.  It's not that we shouldn't love people who struggle with homosexuality; we just cannot accept that it is not sinful and should be turned away from.  I'd be appalled if my kid was taught, in a Christian school, that it was OK to be gay.  I cannot blame the school one bit.

 

06.18.2012 at 10:52

Cameron- The other school he worked at never even knew his orientation, so... highly unlikely he'd be teaching the kids anything at all to do with sexuality. 

 

06.19.2012 at 08:08 Reply

I just wrote a letter of encouragement to CHCA for their courageous action here. 

All they did was make a decision that fit their stated values, without drama.  That's not hypocrisy, that's consistency.

 

06.19.2012 at 09:07

Consistent? Yes. Consistently wrong? Also yes.

 

06.19.2012 at 10:37

You certainly have every right to believe that Kenny. 

I suspect there are at least some areas in your life where your personally-held values cause you to draw lines of distinction between what you believe to be healthy and unhealthy.

That's all CHCA is doing, to the best of their ability, humbling themselves before God as their authority.  I haven't heard any hate speech from leaders there, no destructive dishonoring of Zeng's choices, just a simple decision consistent with their values.

 

06.19.2012 at 10:53

Cultures, religions, traditions — all evolve and I suspect within the next several years, your church will have caught up with the rest of society and treat everyone equally.

So you're cool with fundamentalist Muslims mistreating women in the name of their religion, too, right? It's, they would say, just as consistent with their values.

 

06.19.2012 at 11:25

Kenny, cultures, religions, traditions all evolve, yes.  But they also devolve, and sometimes most "progressive" of viewpoints end up being discredited as an unwise phase of history.  At those times, people are grateful for those, who because of a desire for a healthy civil society, choose not to jump on all the most recent social "progress" bandwagons for the sake of being accepted and mainstream.

 

I suspect with in the next several years:

1. The genetic research that we aren't simply a helplessly a product of our pre-determined DNA that is reaching a critical mass today will have practical applicability to this issue.  In other words, society will find out this how deeply embedded what is "natural" to us is a product of our social conditioning. 

I suspect the average secular American won't care about how that applies to human sexuality, even though it reveals, practically, that sexual values can be changed with consistent choices and a commitment to lifelong struggle against unhealthy patterns of living.

And in that case, American secular society will actually be regressive and anti-progress.  Kind of a grand switch.

No matter our religious or non-religious stances, we all have desperate faith in something and reinforced worldviews that stem from deeply held beliefs. 

Christians are just a bit more honest about ours.

 

06.19.2012 at 01:25

I guess we'll see. Thanks for the civil discourse, Nathan. Doesn't happen often online, let alone when religion is involved. :) All the best.

 

06.19.2012 at 02:01

Kenny,

 

I thank you for this civil conversation as well.  Our society could certainly use a whole lot more of that, and the internet is where the need is most desperately evident.

 

 

06.24.2012 at 03:53 Reply

in response to cameron's comment: i don't think you're a bigot for believing that homosexuality is a sin. i think naive would be a better word. first of all, if christians and jews are so against homosexuality, then why is it not mentioned in the ten commandments, or by jesus for that matter. secondly, who cares what a bunch of people in the desert wrote over 2.000 years ago. your morality should come from within yourself and not from what someone told you or you read in a book.

 

 
 
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