Here in New Jersey, there are roughly 250 Catholic schools across the state, employing many thousands of teachers and other education professionals. Because these schools are not just educational institutions but also religious institutions, the First Amendment gives them greater latitude when it comes to employment decisions like hiring, firing, etc. The law does not, however, give them carte blanche to discriminate whenever and however they see fit. If you’re been fired from your job with a religious school because you allegedly violated a sexual orientation or sex-related “morality” requirement, it may be that, even with the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections, your employer has committed illegal discrimination that can entitle you to receive compensation. Reach out to an experienced New Jersey employment discrimination attorney to find out more.
Two of the more common scenarios in which these issues of law come up involve either an unmarried pregnant employee, or a gay or lesbian employee who gets married. V.C. was an example of the former.
V.C., who worked at a Catholic school in Union County, started out a teacher for toddlers and later moved to a position teaching art. In January 2014, she told her principal she was pregnant. The principal fired V.C., who was not married at the time, just a few weeks later.
When you are an employee of a religious school and you are suing for discrimination, the likelihood of success of your case will depend, at least in part, on what you did at your job. If the law classifies your work as something that makes you a “ministerial” employee, then the law gives your employer much greater leeway in its hiring and firing decisions. Previous court cases have ruled that, for example, a Catholic school teacher who teaches a religion class in addition to her other courses may qualify as a “minster” based upon her teaching that one religion class.
However, if you’re not a ministerial employee, then the hurdles you have to clear are much lower. V.C., for example, supervised a toddler room and later taught art. She never taught any religion classes. None of her work made her a ministerial employee, so her school was not entitled to use the “ministerial exception” argument against her.
V.C. twice took her case up to the Appellate Division court and twice won a renewed opportunity to pursue her Law Against Discrimination case at trial.
Morality rules must be applied equally across all employees
The two Appellate Division court rulings in favor of V.C. provide some very clear and very important pieces of information for people working in religious schools. For one thing, V.C.’s case teaches that a religious school cannot use “premarital sex” as a pretext for what is actually pregnancy discrimination.
In V.C.’s case, the school asserted that it fired V.C. for engaging in premarital sex. The evidence in the case, however, revealed that the school had never punished any male employees, or any non-pregnant female employees, for engaging in premarital sex. If your religious employer only enforces its “premarital sex” ban against women who become pregnant outside marriage, then you may have a very strong case that what your employer really did was engage in illegal pregnancy discrimination.
In V.C.’s case, she also had proof that her employer never took any steps to investigate whether any of its employees were or were not adhering to “Catholic tenets” of morality. In fact, during the principal’s tenure at the school, V.C. was the only person disciplined for immoral conduct and the school made no effort to investigate whether or not its non-pregnant and unmarried employees were engaging in “fornication.” That evidence further strengthened V.C.’s case of illegal discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
Recent rulings like this one make it clear that, even if you work for a religious employer, there are very real limits on what that employer can do with regard to disciplining or firing you related to your pregnancy, your sexual orientation, etc. When they step over that line, you are entitled to seek compensation in a court of law. Look to the knowledgeable pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to provide you with the swift, powerful, and effective representation your case deserves. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to discuss how we can the power of this office to work for you.