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Fired for Being Unmarried and Pregnant? You May Have a Case for Sex Discrimination, Even if You Worked for a Religious Employer

pregnancyNew Jersey law gives religious employers very broad latitude in the employment decisions they make. That broad latitude is required by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Based on those protections, you might think if you’ve been fired from a job at a religious place of employment that you have no recourse, right? Not necessarily. There are many circumstances where a religious employer may still run afoul of anti-discrimination laws and that violation may still entitle the discriminated employee to receive compensation. A knowledgeable New Jersey discrimination attorney can advise you on how best to pursue your case against a religious employer.

One recent example of this scenario was the Appellate Division ruling in the case of V.C., a teacher at a North Jersey Catholic school. The case, which received coverage from nj.com, involved a lay teacher who instructed toddlers. In January 2014, the teacher informed her principal that she was pregnant. At the time, the teacher was engaged but not yet married. Two weeks after the principal learned about the teacher’s pregnancy, the school fired the teacher.

V.C. sued for sex discrimination, but the trial court ruled against her and threw out her case.

The Free Exercise Clause protects the decisions religious employers make regarding, say, pastors, but the First Amendment does not give religious employers total freedom when it comes to their lay employees. So, if you’re a lay employee, like a teacher of toddlers at a Catholic school, your employer still must be bound by the anti-discrimination rules of federal and state law.

A religious employer can terminate employees for violating religious teaching (such as a prohibition against premarital sexual activity), but it must apply those rules in a non-discriminatory way. In other words, a Catholic school can, in theory, have a rule declaring that its lay teachers should refrain from premarital sex but, if the school only enforces that rule and makes a termination when it is faced with a lay teacher who is unmarried and pregnant, then that is not allowable. As only women can be pregnant, any no-premarital-sex policy that has the effect of only ending the employment of unmarried pregnant employees is, in practice, inherently discriminatory on the basis of sex.

In order to defeat such an assertion, an employer would need proof that it took similar punitive action against male (or non-pregnant female) employees when confronted with those employees’ acts of premarital sex, or evidence that it was similarly vigilant when confronted with employees who violated other tenets of the Catholic faith besides refraining from premarital sex . (This is proof that many employers often won’t have.)

V.C. had proof that tended to indicate that the school targeted her for termination specifically because she was pregnant. If she could prove that to a jury, then she had a valid claim for discrimination. The law allowed her to take her case to trial, according to the appeals court.

If you have suffered pregnancy discrimination, whether your employer is secular or religious, you may have a valid case of sex discrimination on your hands. Reach out to the skilled New Jersey employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys have spent countless hours over the years working to help our clients get the outcomes they deserve. Reach us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and to find out how we can help you.

More blog posts:

What Are My Rights in New Jersey If I’ve Been Fired for Being Pregnant (or for a Condition Related to My Pregnancy)?, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 20, 2018

The Extent of Anti-Pregnancy Discrimination Protections for Working Women in New Jersey, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 13, 2018

Photo Credit: 10 FACE / Shutterstock.com

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