In one way or another, we agree to contracts with fixed terms every day: before downloading music on iTunes, buying a cell phone plan, or taking out a student loan. More and more, another area in which the terms of contracts may be non-negotiable is in the area of employment, as individuals desperate for a job agree to an employer’s conditions or risk not being hired. But what if—in addition to a set number of vacation days and an agreement not to publically disparage the employer—potential employees were also asked to commit to other, more fundamental provisions?
In fact, many employees already do.
For example: When Christa Dias of Cincinnati, Ohio, was hired as a part-time technology teacher in 2008 at Holy Family School, and in 2009 at St. Lawrence Catholic School, she had to sign employment contracts agreeing to comply with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Ms. Dias is not, herself, Catholic.
In October 2010, shortly after Ms. Dias asked for maternity leave, she was fired from both schools for breaching her employment contracts. Her violation? Well, it’s confusing.
Ms. Dias alleges that the schools first informed her she was being dismissed “for becoming pregnant outside of marriage,” but upon realizing that this might violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the schools quickly changed their tune. They now claim that they fired her for having undergone artificial insemination, which the Church views as a grave immoral act, and, they say, is in direct violation of her employment agreements, which require employees to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” part 1F. (According to Catechisms 2353, 2366, and 2376, premarital sex and pregnancy outside of marriage are frowned upon, but only artificial insemination is labeled “gravely immoral.”)
In response, Ms. Dias filed an employment discrimination suit against the two schools and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court in April.
Does Ms. Dias have a case? Are these employment contracts enforceable? If a teacher can be fired for engaging in behavior that violates Catholic teachings, can she lose her job for using birth control? What if she has an abortion? How do courts balance employment discrimination laws against the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom? Questions the press did not tackle. LASIS will.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from firing employees because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1978, through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress amended Title VII to include pregnancy discrimination within the definition of sex discrimination; women can’t be fired solely because they’re pregnant.
To make a case of sex discrimination based on pregnancy, a woman must show that she was pregnant, she was qualified for the job, she was fired, and there is a connection between her pregnancy and the termination of her employment. If she makes her case, then the burden shifts to the employer to provide a nondiscriminatory justification for firing her, maybe because she bribed her students, fell asleep in class, or posted inappropriate comments on Facebook. You can figure out how things play out from here. If the employer can’t come up with a legitimate reason for firing the employee, she wins. But if the employer offers a legitimate reason, the employer wins . . . unless the teacher proves that the school’s explanation was merely an excuse to hide its discriminatory conduct.
If she weren’t working for religious institutions, it appears that Ms. Dias would have a clear case of sex discrimination: she was pregnant, by all accounts she performed her job well, she was fired, and there is a connection between her termination and pregnancy.
But Ms. Dias did work for religious institutions, and so we continue our way through this legal maze, and ask: When a religious institution claims that it fired an employee for a religious reason, should courts look into whether the stated reason is just a pretext to hide its discriminatory conduct? This investigation into the employer’s motivation can entangle the government in religious issues, and some courts are not so keen to engage in this inquiry. For example, in 1991 the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that, under the First Amendment, a court must accept a church’s religious justification for dismissing an employee without question. Fortunately for Ms. Dias, the Sixth Circuit is more willing to explore whether an employer’s stated reason for firing its employee is genuine.
In cases when a school initially told its teacher she was being fired for certain conduct and then changed its reason to a religious one, some courts are more likely to disbelieve the school’s “on-second-thought” religious reason for dismissal. This may bode well for Ms. Dias.
In addition, the provision of Ms. Dias’ employment contract in which she agreed to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily doom her case. Employment contracts and handbooks requiring employees to follow specific church teachings are common in religious schools, but the terms of the contracts are still subject to Title VII. A court will refuse to enforce a contract if an employee can show that it was not applied equally to men and women, in which case the court will view the policy as a ploy to engage in sex discrimination.
In a 1999 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, the court explained that for a school to enforce its policy against premarital sex solely by observing the pregnancy of its female teachers would constitute a form of pregnancy discrimination. So Ms. Dias can win if she demonstrates that the schools only enforced this provision against women. The fact that in 2002 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati suspended, rather than fired, a teacher (who was also a priest) accused of sexual misconduct with two male students might weigh in her favor. We think it’s safe to wager that this kind of behavior went against church teachings and would have been prohibited under his employment contract.
Now let’s take things a step or two further. Could an employer of a religious institution regulate whether an employee uses birth control? Has an abortion?
Unlike premarital sex or artificial insemination, which may result in pregnancy, these activities are private matters that are probably difficult for an employer to discover. But suppose a teacher in a Catholic school confides in a coworker that she had an abortion and this coworker tells the school administration. Under Title VII, could the school fire the teacher, if the teacher agreed to these terms when she was hired? If the policy is applied equally to men and women, the answer will most likely be “yes.”
You may be thinking, “But doesn’t the fact that men can’t have abortions automatically make any policy against abortions discriminatory?” Not necessarily (!)
If the policy doesn’t target abortions specifically but rather requires employees to abide by Catholic teachings in general, it’s not discriminatory on its face. So the only way to maintain an employment discrimination claim is to show that, although the policy is “facially neutral,” it’s not applied equally to men and women. This can be demonstrated with proof that a male teacher who also violated the employer’s policy was not fired even though the school was aware of his misconduct as well.
But before you start breaking out the champagne for Ms. Dias: There is an ever-expanding exception to employment discrimination cases against religious institutions that may negate the possibility of Ms. Dias winning her case altogether. In 1972, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first recognized the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, holding that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit the government from interfering in a church’s decision to fire a minister. Basically, religious institutions must be free to dismiss ministers for any reason, without worrying whether their decision will subject them to employment discrimination claims.
If the schools can prove that Ms. Dias served as a minister, she will be barred from bringing a Title VII claim. And courts have expanded the ministerial exception to include many employees who aren’t ordained ministers, as long as their primary duties are ministerial.
Unfortunately for Ms. Dias, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broadened the definition of ministers under the exception even further. In that case, the plaintiff, a teacher, instructed her students on mostly secular subjects with the exception of approximately 45 minutes each day, when she taught religion and led the students in prayer. The plaintiff also completed eight college-level theological courses in order to obtain the title of “called” teacher (as opposed to “lay” teacher). According to a unanimous Supreme Court, those activities were sufficient to label the teacher a minister and dismiss the suit based on the ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims.
In her complaint, Ms. Dias states that she worked as a technology coordinator, teaching computer classes and overseeing the computer systems at the schools. There is no indication that she instructed the students on religious topics or led them in prayer. So Ms. Dias will probably not be considered a minister and the school won’t be able to use the ministerial exception as a defense to her discrimination claim.
Regardless of the outcome of her case, Ms. Dias has no regrets about having artificial insemination, and is delighted with her little girl. “I would do it all over again for her,” she said.
This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke on January 25, 2012. Legal as She is Spoke is a blog produced by New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Katherine Lazarow is a staff editor for the New York Law School Law Review, a member of the Justice Action Center, and an intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. Katherine graduated from McGill University in Montréal with a Bachelor’s in Sociology.