Court Upholds Catholic School’s Decision To Fire Unmarried Pregnant Teacher

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Sep 29, 2023

St. Theresa School is a Roman Catholic elementary school that follows the Archdiocese of Newark’s Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct.  The first section of this code of conduct contains a Code of Ethics, which requires employees to “conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with discipline, norms, and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

In 2011, St. Theresa’s hired Victoria Crisitello, an alumna of the school, who signed an acknowledgement of her receipt and understanding of employment documents including the Code of Ethics.  In 2014, the School’s principal approached Crisitello about a new position, teaching art full-time.  During their meeting, Crisitello stated that she was pregnant.  A few weeks later, Crisitello was fired for violating the Code of Ethics by engaging in premarital sex.

Crisitello filed a complaint, alleging discrimination based on pregnancy and marital status.  The trial court ruled in favor of St. Theresa’s, finding that New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination protects religious institutions that require employees to abide by the principles of the Catholic faith, and there was no suggestion here that Crisitello was terminated for her pregnancy or marital status alone.  Instead, the trial court held that she was terminated for violating the tenets of the Catholic Church.

Crisitello appealed, and the New Jersey Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Crisitello made out a successful case for discrimination.  The decision was sent back to the trial court, and the trial court again ruled in favor of the School. The trial court explained that there was no evidence that remotely suggested that Crisitello’s pregnancy out of wedlock was not the real reason for her termination.  The trial court also found evidence that St. Theresa’s supports its married teachers who become pregnant, and that another Catholic school within the Archdioceses fired a male teacher after he revealed that his girlfriend was pregnant with their child. Crisitello appealed.

The Court of Appeals again reversed, holding that knowledge or observations of an employee’s pregnancy alone is not a permissible basis to detect violations of a school’s policy and terminate an employee.  Crisitello said she knew premarital sex violated the tenets of the Catholic Church, but neither the Code of Ethics nor the employee handbook expressly mentioned premarital sex or that it would result in termination.  St. Theresa’s appealed and the case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law provides that it is unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee because of the employee’s marital status or pregnancy, among other protected classifications.  The law has an exception that provides an affirmative defense that permits a religious entity to follow the tenets of its faith in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment.  When invoking the religious exception, the religious employer must show that the employment decision relied solely on employment criteria adopted pursuant to the tenets of its religion.  If the employee cannot show that there is a dispute as to whether the decision relied solely on the religious tenets of the employer, then the affirmative defense applies and acts as an absolute bar to liability.

Here, the Supreme Court of New Jersey found that St. Theresa’s successfully asserted the religious exception as a defense to liability.  Crisitello confirmed receipt and understanding of the Code of Ethics and St. Theresa’s was allowed to require employees to abide by Catholic law as a condition of employment.  Crisitello, a practicing Catholic and graduate of St. Theresa School, was aware that she was required to abide by the tenets of the Catholic faith as a condition of her employment.  St. Theresa’s was clear that they were terminating her employment for violating Catholic law by engaging in premarital sex.  Crisitello offered no evidence that the reason St. Theresa’s gave for her termination was false.  As a result, the Supreme Court of New Jersey dismissed Crisitello’s complaint.

Crisitello v. St. Theresa School (N.J., Aug. 14, 2023) __ A.3d__ [2023 WL 5185586].

Note: While this case was based on New Jersey law, similar cases have been brought in California.  This case is a good reminder that religious employers that expect their employees to adhere to certain religious tenets should be clear in articulating that expectation.  In this case, one of the reasons the School was able to prevail was that it could demonstrate that the employee understood the School’s expectations because the employee had signed an acknowledgment of receipt and understanding of the Code of Ethics. 

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