School Dismisses Unmarried, Pregnant Teacher

Court rules that it did not violate federal law.

Church Law and Tax 1997-03-01

Employment Practices

Key point. Under federal law, and the corresponding laws of some states, religious organizations have the right to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of the religious affiliation of applicants.

Key point. Churches and religious schools can discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, but they must be able to demonstrate that religion is not a pretext of discriminating against a protected group of workers. If the school only dismissed female workers who engaged in sex outside of marriage, the religious exemption would not apply.

A federal appeals court ruled that a church—operated preschool did not violate federal law when it dismissed an unmarried, pregnant preschool teacher. The school, which was affiliated with the Church of Christ, expects that its teachers will adhere to its religious tenets. All teachers are required to be Christians, and preference is given to those who are Church of Christ members. The school uses as its religious tenets the teachings of the New Testament, including the prohibition against sex outside of marriage. The dismissed worker knew that the school was a church—related school and indicated on her employment application that she had a Christian background and believed in God. The worker insisted that she was never told that she would be terminated if she engaged in sex outside of marriage. However, the school’s faculty handbook (given to worker after she was hired) reads: “Christian character, as well as professional ability, is the basis for hiring teachers at [the school]. Each teacher . . . is expected in all actions to be a Christian example for the students.” When school administrators learned that the unmarried worker was pregnant, a decision was made to terminate her employment. However, the woman was informed that she would be eligible for re—employment if she married the father of the child. The school’s president claimed that the woman was dismissed not because of pregnancy, but because the facts indicated that she engaged in sex outside of marriage. The woman filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex discrimination based on pregnancy. The EEOC investigated the claim and issued a “right to sue letter” to the woman, indicating that it felt she had a viable claim. The woman then filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the school committed unlawful sex discrimination when it fired her. A federal district court rejected the woman’s claim, and she appealed.

A federal appeals court agreed with the district court that the school had not violated federal law by dismissing the pregnant worker. It noted that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits certain employers (those with at least 15 employees that are engaged in interstate commerce) from discriminating against any employee on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. While sex discrimination includes discriminating against employees on the basis of pregnancy, Title VII specifically permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. The court concluded that the school dismissed the woman solely on account of her violation of its religious teachings against premarital sex and not because she was pregnant. The court rejected the woman’s claim that the school applied its policy against premarital sex in a discriminatory way that was more strict when women were involved. The court observed that “although Title VII requires that [the school’s] code of conduct be applied equally to both sexes, [the school] presented uncontroverted evidence . . . that [the administrator] had terminated at least four individuals, both male and female, who had engaged in extramarital sexual relationships that did not result in pregnancy.”

Finally, the court acknowledged that the school’s policy occasionally may have been violated because the administrator was unaware of every instance of premarital sex by his staff, but it insisted that “isolated inconsistent application” of the policy “was not sufficient to show that [the school’s] articulated nondiscriminatory reason was not the real reason for [the woman’s] termination.”

There a number of points to note about this decision:

1. Who is covered by Title VII? The court never addressed the question of why the school was subject to Title VII. While it probably had at least 15 employees, was it engaged in interstate commerce? If not, then Title VII would not apply.

2. Religious discrimination is permissible. The case illustrates that religious organizations and schools that are subject to Title VII can discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. However, there are a few very important qualifications here that were mentioned by the court:

The discrimination must in fact be based no religion. Religion cannot be a “pretext” to discriminate on the basis of sex, pregnancy, or some other protected category.

The dismissed worker’s supervisor informed her that the reason she was being terminated was because she was “pregnant and unwed.” While this appeared to make pregnancy the basis for the school’s decision, the court noted that the supervisor used the phrase “pregnant and unwed” to mean that the dismissed worker engaged in sex outside of marriage in violation of the school’s religious principles. Further, the court pointed out that the supervisor lacked the authority to dismiss the worker. Only the school’s president could do so. Accordingly, the supervisor’s statements regarding the basis for termination were not relevant.

While a religious school can discriminate on the basis of religion, it must do so in a way that does not adversely impact a protected group of employees. The dismissed worker insisted that the school dismissed only females who were pregnant and unwed as opposed to persons generally engaging in sex outside of marriage. The court stressed that the evidence in this case demonstrated that the school had consistently discharged both male and female employees who engaged in sex outside of marriage.

3. Information known to subordinate workers. The dismissed worker claimed that her supervisor was aware that she had suffered a miscarriage in the past. She insisted that this knowledge proved that the school did not uniformly follow its policy of condemning sex outside of marriage, and that “religion” was merely a “pretext” to disguise sex discrimination. The court disagreed. It pointed out that knowledge by the supervisor of the worker’s prior miscarriage was never communicated to the president who alone could make a decision to dismiss an employee. Boyd v. Harding Academy of Memphis, Inc., 88 F.3d 410 (6th Cir. 1996). [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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