DETROIT — A former chemistry teacher at a Catholic, all-girls high school in Bloomfield Hills said she was fired before the semester started because of her "non-traditional" pregnancy.
Barbara Webb, 33, of Madison Heights said she'd worked for Marian High School for nine years, also coaching volleyball and softball and serving as student-government moderator. She is gay but said she believes the public, visible nature of a pregnancy led to her firing.
She learned she was pregnant in June, told her employer in July and was fired in mid-August, Webb said. On Aug. 27 she posted on Facebook announcing the firing and encouraging people to "speak out against hate wherever you see it," according to the post shared more than 1,000 times by Monday.
On Tuesday, Webb told the Free Press that her termination letter didn't give a reason. But her previous conversation with administrators made clear the concerns had to do with a morality clause allowing for firing over public conduct of "lifestyle or actions directly contradictory to the Catholic faith," she said.
"That you can't hide a pregnancy from the public is why I was terminated," she said.
The school's president, Sister Lenore Pochelski, confirmed Tuesday that Webb's employment ended about Aug. 19. But she declined to comment on that or Webb's work as a teacher, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.
Webb, who has been with her partner, Kristen Lasecki, 33, for 5 1/2 years, said she wasn't asked how she got pregnant. She said the pregnancy was "non-traditional," and that appears to be what mattered to school administrators. She hasn't decided whether to take legal action, she said.
Webb said the administration gave her a choice between resigning, with health insurance — but no paychecks or other benefits — continuing through the spring semester and not discussing what happened or being fired.
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"I really felt like resigning was a lie; to me, that was willingly leaving," Webb said, adding that she waited a week and decided to go with getting fired. "I was kind of compelled to just let people know the truth."
Deborah Gordon, an employment lawyer in Bloomfield Hills, said that given the apparent facts, if a case went to court, the First Amendment freedom of religion could apply.
"Pregnancy discrimination is flat-out illegal," she said. "There are exemptions for religious institutions. I don't know if she's going to fit into one of them here."
Numerous people spoke in support of Webb and are unhappy with her departure.
"I was shocked — I was absolutely shocked," said Debby Hannigan of Birmingham, whose daughter, Megan, was in Webb's advanced-placement chemistry class last year. "It's not about her being able to do the job."
She said Webb was "inspirational," and her daughter's "best teacher," someone who would be available to help students in early mornings and late afternoons.
Laurie Hix of Beverly Hills, whose two daughters had Webb for a teacher, said Webb is the "epitome of professionalism."
Megan Gorman, a 2013 Marian graduate, said all of her friends are shocked about the firing. Gorman said Webb was her volleyball coach and sophomore chemistry teacher.
"I think the bigger thing everyone is feeling is we have been taught this whole time to live a Christian life and be accepting of people and yet we go and fire one one of our favorite teachers?" Gorman said. "It makes us reconsider and question the time we spent at Marian."
In her Facebook post, Webb implored people to stand up for change.
This is definitely not a crusade against the school. This is so much more than me and Marian. It's letting people know what type of social injustice is still happening.
Barbara Webb, dismissed teacher
"My job can't be saved, but the torment that the poor LGBT students at Marian must be feeling, the other LGBT staff, and those that are silenced by fear can be helped," she said, adding "let's be real" and acknowledge lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered students and staff exist at the school.
Maria Blanco and Becca Tresnak — 2014 graduates of Marian — said several former students are planning to write letters to the school's administration in protest of the firing.
Hannigan said students knew that Webb is gay, but it wasn't something discussed openly. Webb said that, as an educator, she didn't feel sexual orientation had a place in the classroom.
"I lived a private life at my home, and I didn't feel the need to express that at such a detailed level," she said. "To be honest, I was trying to be discreet."
Gordon said a pregnancy outside of what the Catholic faith prescribes is what would be at issue if Webb's firing ended up a court case.
"The fact that she is gay, as a matter of law, is not going to figure in," Gordon said, but pregnancy outside of wedlock would be argued as a morality issue, even though Webb is in a relationship.
"I would want to know if gender was a factor," Gordon said. "Are there male teachers who have impregnated other people and the male is not married? The problem for the woman is you're visibly pregnant."
Joe Kohn, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said in a statement that because Marian High School is Catholic, it is associated with the archdiocese but is a private, independent educational institution. He was aware of the matter but declined to comment.
In 2006, the school fired campus-safety officer Charlene Genther after the former Detroit police officer publicized her autobiography that addressed the same-sex relationship she'd been in for 28 years. Pochelski was the school's president and said Genther was a "great employee."
Webb said she valued her nine years with the school, but this is a human-rights issue.
"This is definitely not a crusade against the school," Webb said of her decision to go public. "This is so much more than me and Marian. It's letting people know what type of social injustice is still happening."