Seven years ago, a Catholic school art teacher in New Jersey was fired after her school said she violated their employment contract by having pre-marital sex — which they knew because she was visibly pregnant.
Shockingly, perhaps, the courts have been on the side of that teacher, Victoria Crisitello, even after multiple appeals from the Church. In a case decided by the state’s Superior Court of Appeals last November, the judges argued that Crisitello wasn’t involved in religious instruction. But more importantly, they said the school was selectively discriminating against her:
… the school never made any effort to determine whether any of its other employees have violated the school’s prohibition against “immoral conduct”… We now hold that knowledge or mere observation of an employee’s pregnancy alone is not a permissible basis to detect violations of the school’s policy and terminate an employee.
It’s far from the only time this sort of thing has happened — and the irony is that Crisitello could’ve kept her job if she had an abortion, because the Catholic Church simply wouldn’t have noticed. Meanwhile, men who impregnate women before marriage, but don’t publicize it, may not be punished at all. It’s sex discrimination as much as anything else.
The judges even noted that Crisitello was treated unfairly:
We reverse because on summary judgment it was undisputed that defendant took no actions to detect whether any of its employees violated Catholic tenets or breached defendant’s employee handbook. Instead, the evidence established that defendant relied only upon knowledge of its female employees’ pregnancy and marital status as a basis to enforce its code of ethics and handbook requirements — neither of which expressly addressed premarital sex as a prohibited conduct, but of which the former prohibited engaging in “immoral conduct” that could cause “scandal.”
In other words, no one was saying the Catholic Church couldn’t set its own rules about employment. But they were not enforcing it across the board, and that was the crux of the problem. (The Archdiocese said in a recent brief that a male teacher at a different school was fired for impregnating his girlfriend, so TAKE THAT, claims of gender discrimination… though, again, firing someone who’s about to have a kid doesn’t exactly endear anyone to the Church’s side.)
But now, the New Jersey Supreme Court has decided to take up the case and there’s fear — based on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — that they’ll decide anything goes as long as it falls under a “religious freedom” umbrella:
Last July, the Supreme Court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at church-run schools whose duties include religious instruction. In doing so, it expanded the scope of employees deemed outside the reach of employment discrimination protections — known as the “ministerial exception” to workplace bias laws.
The broadened definition could arguably be applied to nearly any employee of a religious school, significantly altering job protections, even in a state like New Jersey, where workers have traditionally enjoyed strong legal safeguards, said Stacy Hawkins, a Rutgers Law School professor who teaches employment law.
A date hasn’t been set for oral arguments but this case will ultimately boil down to whether fair laws can just be tossed aside if there’s a religious argument for doing so. That’s a frightening precedent yet it appears to be the direction we’re heading.
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