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.”