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New Jersey court upholds Catholic school’s firing of unwed pregnant teacher

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CAMDEN, N.J. (BP) – A Catholic school was lawful in firing an employee who became pregnant out of wedlock in violation of church teaching, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Aug. 14, reversing a lower court’s decision.

The court upheld Victoria Crisitello’s 2014 termination by St. Theresa School, a Roman Catholic elementary school, according to court documents.

The court supported the school’s contention that it fired Crisitello for violating its Code of Ethics for employees “to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the discipline, norms and teachings of the Catholic Church.” Specifically, Crisitello had engaged in premarital sex, the school said, as evidenced by her pregnancy.

Crisitello voluntarily told the school she was pregnant in 2013 and, upon her termination three weeks later, sued the school and claimed it violated the state’s anti-discrimination law based on pregnancy and marital status.

Crisitello won on appeal after initially losing her case. St. Theresa’s appealed the appellate court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in the school’s favor. St. Theresa cited the state law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in its appeal.

New Jersey’s High Court said, “the record is bare of any evidence that even remotely suggests that (Crisitello’s pregnancy out of wedlock) is not the real reason for her termination,” according to a court clerk’s syllabus of the case. “The trial court also found significant evidence in the record that St. Theresa’s supports its married teachers who become pregnant and that another Catholic school, also within the Archdiocese of Newark, fired an unmarried male teacher after he revealed that his girlfriend was pregnant with their child.”

Crisitello, a St. Theresa School graduate, signed the school’s code of conduct when hired in 2011 as a toddler room caregiver. The school expanded her duties a year later by adding a part-time art teacher’s job. She revealed her pregnancy when offered a full-time teaching post, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty said in a case summary.

“Teachers make the school,” said Eric Rassbach, Becket vice president and senior counsel, among attorneys speaking for the school. “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.”

In ruling for the school, the court cited the “religious tenets” exception of New Jersey Revised Statutes Section 10:5-12(a). The law states “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice” for a religious entity to follow the tenets of its faith “in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment,” the court clerk wrote of the opinion.

“Here, it is uncontroverted that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church in terminating Crisitello,” the clerk wrote. “St. Theresa’s was therefore entitled to summary judgment and the dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.”

Crisitello originally sought to sue the school alleging violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act but was dissuaded by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), court documents show. The EEOC advised her she could still sue in federal district court, which led to her allegations based on state law.

Beckett was not the attorney for St. Theresa’s, but entered the case as the attorney for Agudath Israel of America, a Jewish Orthodox school in New Jersey that filed an amicus brief in support of St. Theresa’s.

“This case has important ramifications for Jewish schools and all religious institutions in New Jersey,” Agudath Israel of America general counsel Daniel Kaminetsky said in a press release. “Teachers serve as role models for children, and it is entirely appropriate for religious schools to insist that they conduct themselves in ways that comport with religious standards. It would be highly improper for government to interfere with a religious school’s decision to terminate a non-compliant teacher’s employment.”