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CINCINNATI—A federal judge has refused to dismiss a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed by an unmarried pregnant woman who was fired from her Catholic school position, stating a recent Supreme Court ruling on the issue of the “ministerial exception” to discrimination law does not apply.
According to the ruling in Christa Dias vs. Archdiocese of Cincinnati et al. by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division in Cincinnati, Ms. Dias, a non-Catholic technology coordinator at two private Catholic schools, was terminated from her job in October 2010 after telling Archdiocese of Cincinnati employees she had become pregnant through artificial insemination.
Ms. Dias filed suit in April 2011, charging the defendants with pregnancy discrimination and breach of her employment contract. The archdiocese said the ministerial exception to Tile VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should apply, and that Ms. Dias had violated a clause in her employment contract stating she would act consistently with the Catholic church's philosophy and teachings.
In its Jan. 11 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelic Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., the U.S. Supreme Court held a religious school can claim a ministerial exception to a discrimination charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act for a teacher who also taught secular subjects. But the ruling did not make clear the extent to which the ministerial exception applies to other religious organization employees, said some observers.
In his March 29 ruling in Dias, U.S. District Court Judge S. Arthur Spiegel said the Hosanna ruling does not apply. The Supreme Court “refrained from addressing ministerial exception jurisprudence as a whole and from articulating a test or standard for determining who qualifies as a ministerial employee,” the ruling says. “Rather, the court limited its decision to the facts of the case before it, determining that the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, was a ministerial employee.”
However, said the court, “Defendants here did not hold plaintiff out as minister, they did not give her any sort of religious title or commission, and the congregations of the defendant churches took no role in reviewing” her ministerial skills or responsibilities “because she had none.”
The judge also ruled against the church on the contractual issue, stating, “The court finds facts alleged in the complaint allow it to question the applicability of the morals clause in this matter.” The ruling said Ms. Dias said she has a “plausible claim” in her pregnancy discrimination charge.
Commenting on the ruling, the Archdiocese said in a statement, “What’s at stake here is really very simple: Parents who pay to send their children to a Catholic school have a right to expect that those children will be educated in an environment that reflects Catholic moral teaching. That’s why our standard school contract specifies that employees will abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church. That’s the contract that Ms. Dias signed and she violated the contract.”
Robin E. Shea, a partner with law firm Constangy Brooks & Smith L.L.P. in Winston-Salem, N.C., who was not involved in the case, said the judge is obligated to accept all the facts alleged by the plaintiff as true at this stage of the proceedings.
“I didn’t really have a problem” with the ruling, Ms. Shea said. It appeared Ms. Dias was not Catholic, and was not permitted to teach religion, “so there’s no indication, at least from the complaint, which was all the judge is allowed to consider at this stage, she performed any kind of ministerial function.”
This was not the case in the Hosanna-Tabor case, where Ms. Perich was considered a minister, taught religion, and took students to services, said Ms. Shea.
SANTA ANA, Calif.—A Christian school that fired a teacher for living out of wedlock with her boyfriend and raising their child is not liable for wrongful termination, a California appellate court has ruled.