Annie Jacklich’s high school days are long over. But last week, she found herself back at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., protesting the administration.
Jacklich, now 27, graduated from the private Catholic school in 2013. On Sept. 20, she stood outside campus amid a sea of fellow alumni, parents and students, all garbed in rainbow gear.
Demonstrators showed up in droves to peacefully protest the school’s decision to rescind an employment offer to a lacrosse coach after it learned she was in a same-sex marriage.
Amanda Kammes, who declined an interview request from The Lily because of privacy concerns, was offered a position as the head coach for the girls’ lacrosse team earlier this month. When Kammes — a Benet Academy alum — listed her wife as her emergency contact, the school withdrew her job offer, as was first reported by local news outlets.
“I didn’t expect Benet ever to make a choice like that,” said Jacklich. “It was wrong.”
The school did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the Associated Press after news broke of the rescinded offer, Jamie Moss, a spokeswoman for the school, said: “As a Catholic school, we employ individuals whose lives manifest the essential teachings of the church in order to provide the education and faith formation of the young people entrusted in our care.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s recent watershed ruling to protect gay and transgender workers from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious institutions are granted several exceptions.
“They have a lot of leeway,” said Marcia McCormick, a professor of law and gender studies at Saint Louis University.
For instance, if the employee in question is considered a minister, “no lawsuit can be brought against the religious organization,” McCormick explained. What constitutes as a minister, however, is not entirely clear.
Plus, she added, under Title VII, “religious organizations can require that employees follow the religious code of behavior that they think is required,” which can include prohibiting same-sex partners.
Such cases have recently made national news. Two guidance counselors — Lynn Starkey and Shelly Fitzgerald — were fired from the same Catholic high school in Indianapolis for being in same-sex marriages. Starkey sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis in a 2019 lawsuit, and last month, a federal judge sided with the school, claiming Starkey was considered a minister. Fitzgerald filed a similar lawsuit, which is still pending.
But Benet Academy’s justification did not sit right with many students — past and present. After hearing the news that Kammes’s offer of employment had been retracted, dozens of Benet community members swiftly mobilized to support her, as well as other LGBTQ individuals associated with the school.
Jacklich and her brother, Tim Jacklich, a 2016 Benet graduate, spearheaded a widely circulated petition that was signed by more than 4,100 alumni, parents and current students.
The 247-page document begins with a pointed letter, addressed to the Benet Academy leadership. “By rejecting a talented potential staff member on the basis of whom she loves, you have utterly failed to uphold the principles of dignity and charity that you purport to practice as a Christian institution,” the letter reads.
As a gay alum of the school, “I knew that I had to stand up,” said Tim Jacklich, 24. “My first reaction to the story was a feeling of hollowness. I was really heartbroken.”
Brenna Davidson, 17, a senior student at the school, felt the same way.
“Knowing they fired her because of her sexuality really upset me,” said Davidson, who plays on the girls’ lacrosse team.
As word got out that Kammes would no longer be the lacrosse team’s head coach, its group chat started blowing up, according to Davidson. One thing was clear: “We knew we needed to do something,” she said.
She and her teammates decided they would show up at school the following Monday wearing rainbow masks, which they planned to distribute to students, along with other pride-themed paraphernalia.
Gianna Kurelko, a ninth-grade student, donned a rainbow mask that day and helped pass them out to her classmates, she said. She recently transferred from another Catholic school to Benet Academy — purely because she wanted Kammes to be her lacrosse coach.
“I switched schools for her,” said Kurelko, who has been coached by Kammes for several years at Lakeshore Lacrosse, an athletic program Kammes runs. The news of the employment offer withdrawal was “disgusting to hear.”
Kurelko said she feels she can go to Kammes “if I ever need someone to talk to”: “Amanda is very involved with us. … She deserves this job.”
Her mother, Denise Kurelko, echoed that sentiment.
“We see the type of coach she is. She is all about empowering women and having the girls be the best they can be,” she said. “I signed the petition, I was emailing whoever I could email, I went to the protest. I was right there, and I would have done anything and everything to stand up for her.”
Before long, the movement proved its power.
Between the petition, the protest and other student-led initiatives, the rallying cry was ultimately heard: The school re-extended its offer of employment to Kammes on Sept. 21, a few days after her offer had been rescinded.
In a statement from the Board of Directors of Benet Academy, it was clear that the community uproar played a role in changing the school’s stance. “Going forward we will look for opportunities for dialogue in our community about how we remain true to our Catholic mission while meeting people where they are in their personal journey through life,” the statement reads.
Kammes was filled with pride and appreciation.
“It’s been 20 years since I walked the hallways of Benet Academy, and yet, never in my life have I been prouder to be a Redwing,” she wrote in an email statement. “This past week provided a chance for Benet to rally together in the name of community, sportsmanship, and social change, and I’m beyond grateful that Benet reconsidered their decision.”
Colleen Savell, an assistant varsity lacrosse coach at Benet Academy, said she believes the student activism prodded the school’s leadership to reconsider.
The advocacy efforts “really helped push this in a positive direction,” she said, adding that she hopes LGBTQ students feel supported and seen by the broader Benet community.
Savell is also optimistic that the publicity will encourage “other Catholic schools to really consider the kids and what’s right for them,” she said. “We need to make sure they feel comfortable being themselves.”
While the school’s decision to reverse course was met with celebration by many in the community, others weren’t pleased.
The abbot of St. Procopius Abbey, who serves as chancellor to the school, released a statement yesterday expressing that he is “deeply troubled by the school’s decision which calls into question its adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic faith,” and “will communicate further information as the matter develops.”
Teagan Earley, 23, a 2016 graduate of the school who attended the rally, said that while she is thrilled about the outcome, this is only the beginning of the change she hopes to see.
“There is still a lot of work ahead,” she said. Like other former students, she was “furious and ashamed and disgusted” that Kammes’s employment was called into question in the first place.
For Earley and others in the Benet community, “we’re ready to keep fighting. This has shown what lending your voice and speaking up can do,” she said. “It really can make a difference.”