The case of grade school teacher Michelle Bolen came to an outrageous end earlier this week in Kansas City, Missouri. Bolen sought compensation from the diocese overseeing St. Therese because, three years ago, the school terminated her employment after learning she was pregnant without being married.
The diocese that fired her won the case.
A jury found in favor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and school principal Carol Lenz, both of whom claimed she was fired for reasons related to poor performance. Bolen, however, testified that school administrators began singling her out for criticism after she disclosed her pregnancy, deliberately trying to document a case for her dismissal that didn’t hinge on her pregnancy.
She further testified that, despite positive performance reviews in the past, she was the first teacher denied a contract renewal in the decade that Lenz had been in charge.
Even thought this was a private Catholic school, Bolen’s attorney, E.E. Keenan, thought he could win the case based on pregnancy discrimination law, meant to protect workers in exactly Bolen’s situation. Missouri law, however, made that argument unavailable to the prosecution:
Missouri pregnancy law exempts churches. We could not sue them for pregnancy discrimination. We were severely limited in what legal claims we were able to present. We could only present a few other limited claims that were supported by the facts but harder to prove. This verdict is not an endorsement of what the diocese did and not a criticism of Michelle, just that there is a huge gap in Missouri law as it pertains to workers in religious-based schools in Missouri.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is allowed to fire teachers for being single and pregnant, just as they’re allowed to fire teachers in a same-sex relationship. With that argument off the table, Keenan had to argue that the diocese’s actions fell afoul of the 1986 Missouri Abortion Act, which protects workers from being fired for refusing to terminate a pregnancy.
But defense attorney Joseph Hatley argued on behalf of the diocese that Bolen did not face workplace pressure to abort since nobody from the diocese explicitly asked her to consider aborting the pregnancy.
In a meeting with Bolen and her then-fiancé, St. Therese’s pastor Father Joseph Cisetti commended Bolen for choosing not to have an abortion, but also pointed out that if she had, the school would not have been faced with the scandal of a pregnant and unwed teacher. Cisetti’s courtroom testimony stated that “pregnancy is not the problem; fornication is,” citing the moral clause in the teachers’ contracts:
As a teacher in a Catholic school, I am directly involved in the formation of youth in the name of the Catholic Church. In carrying out these solemn responsibilities as a teacher, I will conduct myself in a manner that does not contradict her doctrinal and moral teachings.
The irony of all this is that if Bolen had quietly obtained an abortion, which obviously violates Catholic doctrine, her pregnancy would never have been known to school officials and she could’ve kept her job. But by keeping the child and making her “sin” visible, she was punished for her honesty. The Catholic Church inadvertently created an incentive for women in her position to get an abortion; now they’ve gotten away with punishing her for not doing that.
It should also be said that nobody has been fired from St. Therese, as far as we know, for skipping church on Sunday or gossiping about their fellow teachers — both violations of Catholic moral teaching.
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