Representatives from a group calling for the Catholic bishop to rehire Butte schoolteacher Shaela Evenson delivered a petition to the Diocese of Helena Thursday.
Evenson was fired from her job as a middle school teacher at Butte Central Elementary in January after the diocese received an anonymous letter about her pregnancy out of wedlock. She had taught at the school for about nine years.
A progressive online Catholic group Faithful America collected 21,000 signatures from around the country urging the diocese to reinstate Evenson.
Holding a sign which read, “Who am I to judge?” three local activists walked into the diocesan Chancery in Helena on behalf of the group, hoping to deliver the petition to Bishop George Thomas.
They were instead greeted by a diocesan spokesperson, who told the group of activists and reporters that the bishop was out of town at prior appointments.
“I appreciate your coming out in the cold. The bishop will take it under advisement. It’s unlikely right now that he will reverse the decision made in Butte,” spokesperson Dan Bartleson said.
Helena resident Margaret Rankin, a Catholic who said she’s no longer active in the church, delivered the petition.
Standing in the foyer of the Chancery, Rankin told reporters she was disappointed but unsurprised by the diocese’s response and bishop’s absence.
“I knew he wouldn’t be,” she said.
“If I didn’t speak out for the woman who is being pilloried basically, then I could not live with my own conscience,” she said.
“To me it would be immoral not to speak out.”
Rankin was joined by Susan Hawthorne, a Helena resident and friend of Evenson.
Hawthorne said she spoke to Evenson Thursday morning, who she said is overwhelmed by the public support she’s received.
“Of all the people, this is not what Shaela would ever want, to be in the limelight. She just wanted to be able to have a baby and this was so incredible that all these supporters are coming out for her,” Hawthorne said.
Evenson has not granted an interview to reporters since her firing.
“What I want to do is support my friend and try to make a difference,” Hawthorne added. “The pope is looking for people to be more compassionate and have mercy and maybe that will trickle down to the Helena diocese.”
Bartleson spoke to petitioners for a few minutes and gave them and members of the media a written statement.
The Diocese is unable to speak in detail about the circumstances leading to the “conclusion” of Evenson’s employment at Butte Central, the statement reads.
In the statement, Thomas said Catholic schools are committed to preserving the church’s identity and mission and quoted a recent address by Pope Francis in which he stated that Catholic educators should “defend themselves from all efforts to dilute their Catholic identity.”
“I am deeply saddened by these recent events, and caught between the values of upholding the Catholic identity of our schools, while desiring to provide pastoral outreach and understanding to the teacher,” Thomas said in the release.
This story has been corrected.