When a Catholic art teacher was asked to take on additional responsibilities, she asked for a raise, explaining that she was about to have a baby.
A few weeks later, she was dismissed from her elementary school in New Jersey. The headmistress, a Roman Catholic nun, told her she was fired “because she was pregnant and single,” according to court records.
The woman filed a complaint. His daughter is now 7 years old, but the trial remains in limbo, caught in a back and forth of several years between the New Jersey trial and the courts of appeal.
A court of appeal has twice ruled in favor of former teacher Victoria Crisitello. But last month, the state’s highest court, acting on the school’s appeal, agreed to hear the case, signaling a willingness to get into the heated debate over the relationship between the government and the religion.
His ruling comes less than a year after the US Supreme Court upheld the right of church-run schools to fire lay teachers, one of recent court rulings much more likely to rule. in favor of religious rights than not.
The archdiocese that oversees New Jersey’s school, St. Theresa in Kenilworth, has presented its legal argument as an inescapable fight for “fundamental freedom of religion.”“
“Sex outside marriage violates a fundamental Catholic belief that the school in this case felt it could not ignore,” St. Theresa’s lawyers wrote in a petition to the state Supreme Court.
Ms Crisitello’s attorney, Thomas A. McKinney, says the case is as much about sex discrimination and double sexual standards as it is about First Amendment rights.
The manager admitted in her testimony that she had made no effort to determine whether other staff, including men, were having extra-marital sex, according to court records.
Because the school’s only evidence of a violation of its moral code was the pregnancy itself, “only a woman could be punished, not a man,” McKinney said.
“If you’re going to punish someone for doing something,” he said, “it has to be applied evenly and consistently.”
Ms Crisitello, who attended St. Theresa’s School as a child, was made redundant in 2014 and no longer works as a teacher. Her daughter was then baptized in the Catholic Church which operates kindergarten through eighth grade.
Ms Crisitello, through her lawyer, declined to comment. School officials did not respond to a call for comment.
“I don’t think she expected all of this,” McKinney said. “I don’t see this as an attack on the Catholic Church.”
Last July, the Supreme Court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws did not apply to teachers in denominational schools whose duties include religious education. In doing so, it broadened the scope of employees found to be outside the scope of protections against discrimination in employment – known as the âministerial exceptionâ to workplace bias laws.
It is no longer only trained or ordained ministers and religious leaders who can be excluded from protections against professional bias; the federal court ruled that lay employees involved in promoting church doctrine were also exempt from federal employment discrimination laws.
The expanded definition could arguably be applied to almost any employee of a religious school, significantly changing job protections, even in a state like New Jersey, where workers have traditionally enjoyed strong legal guarantees, said Stacy Hawkins, professor at Rutgers Law School who teaches employment. law.
Ms Crisitello’s trial was twice rejected by the judges of the trial court, only to be reinstated each time on appeal.
His lawyer, seeking to differentiate the case from the Supreme Court decision which broadened the ministerial exception – Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru – pointed out that Ms Crisitello taught art, not religion. She was first hired as an aide in a preschool class, he said, and had never taught religion.
The New Jersey Court of Appeals, citing legal precedent, found that there was evidence the school had not attempted to apply its moral code equally, citing in its main characters of “The Scarlet Letter âby Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“While a religious school employer may validly seek to impose moral doctrine on its teaching staff, punishment singularly directed at the Hester Prynnes, regardless of the Arthur Dimmesdales, is not permitted,” the judges quoted.
Appeals judges issued the notice, making it the guiding legal standard in New Jersey, unless it is overturned. This increased the urgency of the case for the Archdiocese of Newark.
“This case affects fundamental freedom of religion not only for the Catholic Church and its institutions, but also for the operations of other religious organizations,” Archdiocesan spokeswoman Maria Margiotta said in a statement. âPotentially, all religious organizations, including all Catholic schools in the archdiocese, are affected. “
The school also hired another lawyer, Peter G. Verniero, a former state attorney general and state Supreme Court judge.
Mr Verniero said the school’s request for intervention with the state’s Supreme Court spoke for itself and declined any further comment.
The school argued in its court application that Guadalupe’s decision covered employees like Ms Crisitello. He also said that a teacher at another school in the archdiocese was fired after his unmarried girlfriend got pregnant, contradicting the claim that only women could be punished.
“Religious institutions of many denominations in this state are now at risk of being drawn into the vortex of employment disputes, contrary to the constitutional view regarding the separation of church and state,” the petition says.
The court has not set a date for oral argument in the case, which is being closely watched by experts in workplace bias law and a national union of Catholic teachers.
Depending on the results, this could attract the attention of the United States Supreme Court, lawyers said.
Professor Hawkins said she believes this would be unlikely unless more than one state deviates from the legal standard set in Guadalupe. “I think the court will probably wait and see if there is a broader concern that the lower courts are not going along with its decision before reconsidering the matter,” she said.
This is not the first time that a teacher in a denominational school has been penalized for personal decisions.
A single teacher was fired in 2018 from a Catholic school in Pennsylvania after becoming pregnant. In 2016, a basketball coach who was also the dean of Paramus Catholic High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, was fired after marrying another woman. (The Archdiocese of Newark would later have settled the woman’s lawsuit out of court.)
Catholic schools, already facing declining enrollment, often face complaints from parents concerned about glaring deviations from the church’s moral teachings by teachers, creating tension that can be difficult for schools to manage. private schools dependent on tuition fees, said Mary Kay Rossi, president of the South Jersey Teachers Union.
Still, she said her union had handled at least two similar cases involving pregnancies, both of which were resolved without interruption.
Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, which represents around 3,000 parish school workers across the country, bristled at decisions made by a church still plagued by a sexual abuse scandal involving priests .
âThe church is supposed to hate sin, but not the sinner,â Ms. Schwartz said. âThey should be very happy that she didn’t have an abortion. You do not think ?
âIt should have been treated with love,â she added. âThe whole thing in our religion is not fear. He doesn’t shoot. It’s love. She needs help here. She needs people to work with her, and that’s what they’re supposed to do, not âWith her headâ.