CINCINNATI — The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has been ordered to pay more than $170,000 in back pay and damages to a former Catholic schoolteacher who sued the archdiocese for firing her after she became pregnant through artificial insemination.
The archdiocese said it was enforcing a morals clause in an employment contract that requires archdiocesan employees to “comply and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”
However, Christa Dias and her attorney argued that the archdiocese violated her rights under federal pregnancy anti-discrimination laws when it fired her from her teaching job in October 2010. A jury agreed, finding for the plaintiff after a week-long trial in a federal court in Ohio.
On June 3, the jury — after deliberating for two days — awarded Dias $50,000 in back day, $21,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, said Dan Andriacco, the communications director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Andriacco told the Register that the archdiocese is looking into the possibility of appealing the verdict.
“It certainly is under lively consideration,” Andriacco said. “We obviously still strongly believe that we have a First Amendment right to give Catholic school parents what they expect, which is an environment that reflects Catholic moral teaching.”
Keith Fournier, a constitutional lawyer and editor in chief at Catholic Online, wrote that he hoped the archdiocese will appeal because the Dias case could have “ominous implications.”
Fournier said the case “raises the question: Can a Catholic, or, for that matter, any Christian institution, insist that its employees abide by the teaching of the Church?”
Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, told the Register that the Cincinnati case is “very troubling.”
“It portends an era in which Church entities are going to be playing defense,” Brejcha said. “I just think this should be taken as a major warning sign that we’ve got to do better in raising defenses ahead of time and not trying to scramble after a lawsuit is filed.”
Moral Code Challenged
Dias’ case is but one example of the Catholic Church in the United States running into legal opposition for demanding that employees abide by its moral code.
In December 2012, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati had another lawsuit filed against it for firing a first-grade teacher in December 2011 who broke her contract’s morals clause by becoming pregnant out of wedlock. That lawsuit is still pending.
In the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, Carla Hale, a former physical education teacher, is considering filing a civil lawsuit after she was fired in March from her Catholic high-school job after it came to light that she was in a same-sex relationship. She has already filed a complaint with the Columbus City Commission under a local ordinance that relates to gender discrimination.
Brejcha said that such cases underscore the need for Catholic leaders to make a “much more vigorous effort” in setting clear ground rules for their employees and to say that Catholic school employees should be actively involved in propagating Catholic doctrine.
Dias, 34, an active homosexual who is not Catholic and is living in a same-sex relationship that she concealed while she worked for the archdiocese, said during the trial that she was unaware of the Catholic Church’s teachings against artificial insemination.
Dias’ lawyer, Robert Klingler, presented the case to the jury as a pregnancy-discrimination issue. Klingler told the jury to ignore the archdiocese’s employment-contract argument and to focus instead on the federal anti-discrimination law.
In order to be found guilty of violating the federal pregnancy-discrimination law — a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a pregnancy only needs to be a “motivating factor,” and not the only reason, for a termination.
“In essence, their argument is: Given that she was fired for artificial insemination, the pregnancy is then a contributing factor,” Andriacco said.
Klingler did not return messages from the Register seeking comment, and Dias, who now reportedly lives in Georgia, could not be reached for comment.
Dias told The Associated Press that she was “very happy and relieved” and claimed that she filed the lawsuit “for the sake of other women” in similar circumstances.
“It was never about the money. They should have followed the law, and they didn’t,” Dias also told the AP.
Andriacco said the case should never have gone to trial. He said the archdiocese considered Dias to be a ministerial employee, a status that falls under an exemption from federal anti-discrimination law.
The established legal standard that most courts use for the ministerial exception considers whether the employees’ job responsibilities render them important to a church’s spiritual and pastoral mission. Churches and their affiliated organizations define ministerial employees according to their internal definitions, but that does not completely shield them from legal challenges.
A judge in the Cincinnati case previously ruled that Dias, a computer technology teacher, would not be considered a ministerial employee.
“We disagreed with that,” Andriacco said.
That classification is important from a First Amendment and religious-freedom point of view, for it allows churches and religious to be able to hire and fire their ministers and employees without undue interference from the government.
The ministerial exemption was the central issue in a 2011 Supreme Court case involving Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in Michigan, which fired a third-grade teacher who had taken a leave of absence for an illness. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sided with the teacher, who claimed discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Federal lawyers argued that the teacher — though the church had formally “commissioned” her — was not a ministerial employee by their definition, but, in January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that sided with the church.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said the federal government’s view was “remarkable,” “extreme” and “untenable.” Roberts added that the “authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone” and rejected the government’s arguments that the ministerial exception be limited to employees who perform “exclusively religious functions.”
Whether the Cincinnati case has any far-reaching effects on religious-freedom jurisprudence is unclear. Andriacco said the archdiocese’s attorney indicated the particular facts in the Dias case do not appear to lend themselves to setting a precedent. He noted that Dias is not Catholic, and, as a computer teacher, her job can be seen by the courts as not being central to the school’s religious mission.
“The artificial insemination adds another dimension to it,” Andriacco said.
A previous judge in the Dias case also ruled that the archdiocese’s morals clause could be enforceable as long as it was applied equally.
“And that’s a good precedent. We argued very strongly that we do enforce the clause equally,” said Andriacco, who added that the archdiocese’s personnel director testified during the trial that six male employees had been fired at various times for violating the morals clause.
The Dayton Daily News reported June 6 that the archdiocese has added a new provision to its 2013-2014 teachers’ employment contract, specifying that teachers agree that they are “ministerial employees” who are required to live in accordance with Catholic moral teachings.
Cite the Catechism
Brejcha said it would be a good idea for morals clauses in employment contracts to make explicit references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its defined teachings. Brejcha said he was also troubled by the precedent of secular authorities delving into a religious school’s personnel decisions and making decisions on how or whether their morals clauses will be enforced.
“This should really be up to the Church. Letting secular authorities make these decisions is fraught with peril. It’s not up to the secular authority to second-guess the Church in these matters. I would hope the line is drawn where the Church is free to make these decisions,” Brejcha said.
As for Dias’ claim that she did not understand the Church’s teaching against artificial insemination, Andriacco said that is irrelevant.
“Just like in criminal law, ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” he said. “The fact is that she did break the contract by becoming artificially inseminated.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.