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Unmarried Pregnant Employee Can Sue Religious School for Discrimination

Appeals court says “knowledge or mere observation” of woman’s pregnancy is not a “permissible basis” to fire her under state law.

Key Point 8-12.04. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. The Act permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. This exemption permits such organizations to discriminate on the basis of moral or scriptural standards so long as they do so consistently and not in a way that adversely impacts employees who are members of a group that is protected under an applicable state or federal discrimination law.

A New Jersey appeals court ruled that a pregnant, unmarried teacher could pursue a lawsuit under her state’s nondiscrimination law against a religious school. The reasons: The school did not possess a policy explicitly identifying extramarital sexual relations as a ground for dismissal, and the school failed to investigate the treatment of married and unmarried males and married and unmarried female employees to determine if unmarried pregnant females were being treated less favorably in violation of state law.

Background

An unmarried woman (the “plaintiff”), who held a bachelor’s degree in art education, was hired by a Catholic parochial school (the “defendant”) “in September 2011 as a teacher’s aide ‘in the toddler room.’ Two years later, [she] also began teaching art for students in kindergarten to eighth grade. Plaintiff never taught courses about religion nor did she act as a minister or any other member of the clergy,” a state appeals court stated.

When the defendant hired the plaintiff, she received a copy of the defendant’s handbook. Moreover, she was aware of the Catholic Church’s prohibition against premarital sex.

The appeals court said:

In 2014, while having a conversation about defendant wanting plaintiff to assume additional responsibilities, [plaintiff] advised the school’s principal that she was pregnant and that if she were to perform additional work, she would like to be paid more. . . .

A few weeks later, [the principal], on her own, decided to fire plaintiff for engaging in premarital sex. However, before doing so, defendant hired a replacement who was a married woman with children. When defendant finally fired plaintiff, [the school] told her she was being terminated because she was pregnant and unmarried. It was undisputed that plaintiff’s termination related only to that fact as compared to her job performance. It was also undisputed that defendant never made any “inquiry of any employee as to whether they were pregnant, unmarried, engaged in premarital sex, divorced, or otherwise violated any of the Church’s doctrines.”

The court also noted:

[D]efendant required all of its “lay faithful” teachers, “whether employed in areas of ministry or other kinds of services,” to abide by a code of conduct that was not “contrary to the discipline and teachings of the Catholic Church . . . or which may result in scandal . . . or harm to the ministry of the Catholic Church.” Additionally, defendant’s handbook contained numerous provisions aligning with the Church’s tenets, including a section labeled “Christian Witness” which required teachers to practice a “value-centered approach to living and learning in their private and professional lives.” The handbook also provided that each staff member “integrate culture, faith, and life through the teachings of all subject areas in the light of the Gospel so that the children can become ‘good Christians and honest citizens.’”

However, it was also undisputed that

[n]one of the policies or provisions of the handbook expressly identified premarital sex as a prohibited conduct. According to the school’s principal, . . . there was no specific statement in any document that would inform someone that if they became pregnant while being unmarried that they would be violating [any] policy. There was no statement in the documents that a violation of any provision would result in immediate termination from employment.

Fired teacher claims unlawful pregnancy discrimination

The plaintiff sued the defendant, claiming the religious school had engaged in sex discrimination in violation of state law because it dismissed her solely on the basis of her pregnancy. This, she argued, amounted to unlawful pregnancy discrimination because the defendant failed to investigate the disciplinary action taken by the defendant against males or nonpregnant females.

The court dismissed the case, and the plaintiff appealed. The state appeals court reversed the trial court and ruled that the plaintiff could pursue her claim of discrimination in court.

The court observed 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 “acknowledged defendant’s right to terminate a teacher whose employment was conditioned upon adherence to its religious principles.”

However, the court stated, “[d]efendant cannot enforce its prohibition by only disciplining women whose premarital sexual relations are disclosed through their pregnancy.”

The court also noted:

“[A] school [cannot] use the mere observation or knowledge of pregnancy as its sole method of detecting violations of its premarital sex policy.” . . . “Women [cannot] be subject to termination for something that men would not be, [as] that is sex discrimination, regardless of the justification put forth for the disparity.”

What this means for churches

This case is important for two reasons.

First, church leaders should understand that dismissing unmarried, pregnant employees without investigating extramarital sexual relations by unmarried or married males and unmarried or married females may constitute pregnancy discrimination in violation of state and federal laws.

That is, if nonpregnant employees who engage in extramarital sexual relations are not disciplined for their behavior, then a church that dismisses pregnant females for the same conduct may be committing unlawful discrimination based on pregnancy.

Second, one of the court’s reasons for rejecting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case was the failure of the defendant to list “pregnant out of wedlock” or “extramarital sexual relations” among the grounds for termination of employment. The vague references to moral behavior in the defendant’s policy manual were not sufficient to provide the plaintiff with notice as to what behaviors were prohibited.

The defendant’s principal acknowledged that there was no specific statement in any document that “would inform someone that if they became pregnant while being unmarried that they would be violating any policy.” The lesson is clear. Church employment policies should identify with specificity the grounds for termination. Crisitello v. Saint Theresa School, 242 A.3d 292 (N.J. App. 2020).

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Posted:
  • October 27, 2021

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