You might think that employers these days are way too subtle to fire a female employee for getting pregnant, and admitting to that as the reason. But you’d be wrong, especially as it relates to Catholic schools. The latest in what has been a string of cases involving female teachers at Catholic institutions is unlikely to be the last, as courts grapple with whether it is permissible for religiously-affiliated institutions to fire teachers who do not uphold the Catholic principle of abstaining from premarital sex. The reality that most institutions focus solely on pregnant women (who alone are capable of publicly manifesting their non-compliance) may ultimately doom those institutions that take such punitive steps, as it is clearly sex discrimination to punish only women who engage in premarital sex.
Michelle McCusker, a 26-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher in her first year of employment at the St. Rose of Lima School in Rockaway Beach (Brooklyn, New York) became pregnant, and did not intend to marry the child’s father. After she safely passed her first trimester, she informed the principal at her school about her pregnancy, who, according to McCusker, “made it seem as if it was fine.” (See Chicago Tribune article.)
Two days later, however, she found out that it was not so fine with school officials, as McCusker was fired for violating the contract she signed with the school to “convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition.” (See Knight Ridder article.) The school acknowledged the quality of McCusker’s job performance in her October 11 termination letter, writing, “Your teaching ability and love of your children was of a high degree of professionalism.”
After losing her $30,000-a-year job and health insurance, McCusker is living with her parents on Long Island and working as a substitute teacher in city public schools. She has also chosen to fight back and challenge her firing. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is representing Michelle in her fight against the school, its leadership and the local Catholic diocese. (See NYCLU Press Release.) NYCLU has filed a complaint on McCusker’s behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.
On what basis? you might ask. Doesn’t a Catholic school have the right to hire only those teachers who voluntarily agree to uphold Catholic principles? And shouldn’t McCusker, if she isn’t willing to live up to those principles, just find a job somewhere else? The key to McCusker’s case is whether her firing constitutes sex discrimination. How does the school know that McCusker was engaging in premarital sex? (Let’s assume that St. Rose of Lima’s teachers aren’t beating down the principal’s door to tell her the intimate details of their private lives.) It’s only because she is a woman who got pregnant. Men, who can’t get pregnant, and women who don’t get pregnant don’t outwardly manifest any signs of their so-called transgressions.
McCusker is not alone in pointing out the irony of how she is upholding other, and some would argue more important, Catholic principles, by not aborting her fetus (and possibly not using birth control, although McCusker’s private life has already been invaded enough without having to disclose that detail.) McCusker, at the press conference announcing her battle against the school, stated, “I don’t understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life could terminate me because I’m pregnant and am choosing to have this baby.” (See McCusker statement.) Eileen Moran of Catholics For a Free Choice also pointed out, “Ironically had she been a student in a Catholic institution, and a pregnant single woman, Church authorities would have counseled her, indeed may have even pressured her, to continue her pregnancy. Yet, as her employer, in spite of all the official pronouncements of being pro-child, pro-parent, and pro-family, St Rose fired her.”
The principal, when firing McCusker, said that she knew McCusker was “doing the right thing by having the baby, that she “understands that we live in a different century,” and “wished there could have been a different outcome.” (See McCusker statement.) However, she was overruled by her superiors, whose official position has been that “This is a difficult situation for every person involved, but the school had no choice but to follow the principles contained in the teachers’ personnel handbook,” according to diocese spokesman Frank DeRosa. (See Knight Ridder article.)
NYCLU has previously been successful in obtaining a favorable settlement in favor of a woman fired by a religious charity once becoming pregnant. In 2003, it represented the director of an after-school program who was demoted to a position involving no student contact after she became pregnant. After the EEOC found that the charity engaged in sex and pregnancy discrimination, NYCLU was able to negotiate a settlement that forced the charity to adopt an employment policy that prohibited discrimination on the basis of marital status or pregnancy. They are asking St. Rose to adopt a similar policy for its employees. (See NYCLU Press Release.)
While some might feel that St. Rose or any other Catholic school has no business terminating employees who become pregnant, their ability to do so is relatively unrestricted, based on the First Amendment’s religious protections. If St. Rose can show that they take similar steps to root out all premarital sex, and are equally as likely to fire male teachers who impregnate their female partners, or all teachers who engage in premarital sex regardless of whether pregnancy is involved (which might be rather interesting considering the Church’s prohibition on birth control), then its actions against McCusker will not be discriminatory. Courts are generally loath to restrict a religious institution’s attempt to enforce its values in the workplace.
However, as is often the case, pregnancy makes unmarried female teachers an easy target, so it is relatively unlikely the school is engaging in the detective work necessary to root out all moral evil as defined by Catholic doctrine. If that is the case, then it will be considerably easier for McCusker to show that she was discriminated against. Then, perhaps other teachers, if not McCusker herself, will be able to face pregnancy as single mothers without the added worry that they will have to face pregnancy and childbirth without any health insurance. We can also hope that McCusker’s time in the spotlight, with the resulting invasion of her privacy, will lead to new employment with an employer more eager to treat its employees fairly.