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Trish Cameron poses for a portrait in her home Wednesday in Moorhead. Cameron was asked to resign from her teaching position at St. Joseph's school after teaching there for nearly 11 years because of her stance on gay marriage. She recently accepted a teaching position with the Fargo Public School District. Jesse Trelstad / The Forum

Why a Moorhead Catholic School teacher bucked the church on gay marriage and paid the price

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MOORHEAD - Standing last fall before a class of fifth-graders, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Catholic Diocese of Crookston told the children they should tell their parents to vote for a gay marriage ban Minnesotans will consider this fall.

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Listening to Hoeppner in his annual visit to meet her students, Trish Cameron, 47, thought the students she taught were being enlisted in a political movement they barely understood.

After teaching at St. Joseph's Catholic School for 11 years, the bishop's visit sparked two events in Cameron's life: the beginning of an awareness about same-sex marriage and the subsequent end to her 11 years at St. Joseph Catholic School in Moorhead, a departure that drew headlines earlier this month.

It wasn't just the visit from Hoeppner. Praise for the proposed constitutional amendment was in the weekly church bulletins, the "Our Northland Diocese" newspaper, even from the pulpit on more than one occasion, Cameron said in an interview Wednesday.

Cameron said her feelings toward the amendment and the Church's teachings on gay marriage were like "magma rising to the surface." The issue came to a head with a two-sentence response in Cameron's annual self-evaluation.

To the first question asking to reflect on whether or not she supported the teachings of the Church, Cameron responded, "I do not agree with all Church teachings on a personal level, but I do not bring my own opinions into our religion classes. We tend to focus on respect and love for one another and living out our call as servants whenever a 'political' topic crops up (which is rarely if ever, does)."

Cameron said she spoke with St. Joseph's principal, Toby Biebl, in April about her response, but she did not think the conversation would go any further.

In late May, as Cameron walked into the principal's office for her contract signing, she said as soon as she walked in the door and the pastor, Monsignor Mike Foltz, had her self-evaluation in his hand, she knew what the conversation was going to be about.

During her conversation with Foltz and Biebl, Cameron expressed she thought it would be difficult for the Catholic Church to openly discuss same-sex marriage, and explained that her self-evaluation response was to express her discomfort with the Church's aggressive political position with the issue.

"I shared that, but I did this in the privacy of an office with the principal and the pastor, and not with my students and not as a platform with parents."

"At the end of a very long, respectful dialogue - but honest - he ended by saying that he was not comfortable renewing my contract," Cameron said. "He told me he was going to take the week to pray about it, and I should pray about it, too."

A week later, Cameron met with Biebl and Foltz, and they asked her what she wanted to happen.

"It had been a long week for me, there had been a lot of sighing, a lot of people praying for me" Cameron said. "I said after a week to think it over, I just wanted to stay here. I still feel like I can offer a lot to the kids, to the families and the staff, and I just wanted my job back."

Foltz asked her if her viewpoint had changed.

Cameron answered no.

Cameron said Foltz responded, after a long conversation among the three, with respect and clarity, that they had a "predicament." Foltz told Cameron he was surprised she wanted to stay at the school, given she still disagreed with the church's teachings.

"I am going to follow exactly what the Church says, or well, I know what the Church teaches, but in my personal life I have the ability to disagree," Cameron said.

Her contract was not renewed, and she was asked to write a brief statement of resignation that Friday afternoon. By Saturday, she was in her classroom with her husband, sister and brother-in-law, packing up her room.

Foltz and Hoeppner did not return calls from The Forum seeking comment.

"Essentially, I couldn't even have dissent in thought," Cameron said. "I asked him at one point if anyone else had said anything like this on their evaluations, and (Foltz) said, 'To my knowledge, you are the only one who thinks this way.' "

Despite disagreeing with some of its teachings, Cameron is a devout follower of the Catholic faith.

She attended Catholic school for 12 years with her three siblings. As a child, when asked to describe her family, her first answer was "Catholic."

Her father, Robert Lee, 84, worked three jobs to put his children through Catholic school and continues to attend mass six days a week. But he said he could not agree with the school's actions.

"One priest involved said to me, 'We have compassion, too.' But obviously, it wasn't for this very honest, religious gal," Lee said in a handwritten letter to The Forum.

Cameron's sister, Linda Sand, has been actively supporting her sister, and has encouraged her to let people know her story. Sand said she is proud of her sister's courage, though it was heartbreaking to see. And as a parent to one of Cameron's former students, it was an outrage, she said.

"Trish lived out this command of love throughout her entire teaching career - does this count for absolutely nothing?" Sand said. "Just because Trish questioned an issue the church has made explosively political, she lost a job she was exemplary at and that she loved. Are we a church where it's one strike and you're out?"

The feedback since her resignation has been "incredibly generous," Cameron says. She has received a call from a couple in Georgia giving her support, a card from a reverend in Bemidji telling her to stay strong and emails, calls and hugs of support from other community members.

Cameron continues said she plans to accept a middle school teaching position for the Fargo Public School District.

But sitting at her kitchen table Wednesday morning, discussing the ordeal that concluded with her resignation, Cameron said her situation is minor compared to the issue that prompted it. She'd like an open, honest discussion of church teachings and what she called "the domestic church," its members, want to see.

"If we, the Catholic Church, can be a bridge to all these loving people and work up a dialogue, wouldn't this be a wonderful thing," she said. "There are people hurting, really hurting, because of the church's stances on major issues like same-sex marriage."

Cameron said as a way to check her motives to speak publicly about her resignation, she spoke to her priest at St. Francis Catholic Church. She asked him if there would ever be a time where they could have listening sessions, where people would not be spoken to, but where the leadership would come to the table. His answer was while people may be heard, their actions and feelings toward divine teachings will not bring change.

"Maybe God is not just coming through the ordained or sacred scripture or tradition in the pulpit - but through the people," Cameron said. "Maybe there is something profound happening, in their unique and valid life experiences. Maybe that matters, too. And let's not be afraid of that."

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