Free Speech for Teachers vs. School's Freedom of Religion

WILMINGTON, Del. — Can a Catholic school fire a schoolteacher for signing a pro-abortion newspaper ad? That's the question in a federal lawsuit the teacher has brought against the school.

Religion and English teacher Michele Curay-Cramer says she was wrongly dismissed from the all-girls Catholic prep school where she worked. Ursuline Academy, a Catholic prep school in Wilmington, says her actions are a baseless attack on religious freedom, the school's attorney said.

The suit was filed in Delaware's U.S. District Court on Nov. 7.

“What's under attack is the right of religious schools and institutions to inculcate the values of their religion in their students,” said defense attorney Barry Willoughby. “We are certainly going to assert a First Amendment defense to all of the allegations.”

Ursuline fired Curay-Cramer in January after she allowed her name to appear on a full-page pro-abortion ad signed by Delaware's governor and 600

others commemorating the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. According to the Associated Press, she was given the option of publicly recanting her beliefs or resigning.

Curay-Cramer described herself as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” saying abortion should be a last option.

She was hired by the school in June 2001 and, less than a year later, according to the AP, she began volunteering for Planned Parenthood.

In a deposition, her lawyer said she did not work in any Planned Parenthood abortion site but that she was concerned about health care delivery in the inner city and that “they give out health information in the schools.”

Ursuline Academy is a 110-year-old independent Catholic school operated by the Ursuline Sisters.

The suit, which names Ursuline Academy, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop Michael Saltarelli and two Ursuline employees, also alleges that Curay-Cramer, 32, is the victim of gender discrimination.

Willoughby said he will file a motion to dismiss the allegations in mid-December. “What is likely to happen is we will agree with the plaintiff's lawyer and with the court on a briefing schedule for our motion to dismiss,” he explained.

Curay-Cramer's lawyer, Thomas Neuberger, claims his client signed the ad in order to support her fellow employees' right to have abortions, which he says is protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the related Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The suit argues that the act protects people who speak out in favor of abortion.

“I framed her case as when she signed the ad, she was advocating the rights of employees at this institution,” he explained. “When they fire her for signing the ad, the law kicks in and it would be a violation of the law.”

Willoughby calls that interpretation of the law “laughable.”

“That section of the statute simply doesn't say that and all the case law that is available supports our position,” he explained. “And even if the statute could be read as her lawyer claims, the First Amendment trumps that because a religious institute has a right to teach its beliefs.

“What the plaintiff's lawyer is trying to do is twist the Civil Rights Act into a private First Amendment free-speech right for Curay-Cramer. To say she was allegedly speaking out against an employment practice at Ursuline is not true. There was no employment practice being challenged here. She was trying to advocate her contrary view on abortion.”

Under state and federal law, religious institutions can be exempt from prohibitions against certain types of discrimination that apply to other employers. In a written statement, the Diocese of Wilmington said Bishop Saltarelli could not comment specifically on Curay-Cramer's claims.

“However, the Constitution guarantees every religious institution the right to practice and uphold the teachings of its faith, and the diocese and bishop strongly support the right of every Catholic school to ensure that its faculty members teach and uphold the doctrine of the Catholic faith.”

Compounding Curay-Cramer's case is a federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ruling in August that the teacher's rights were not violated under the Civil Rights Act.

Neuberger filed the EEOC complaint in February using the same arguments outlined in his federal lawsuit. Under federal law, an EEOC complaint must be filed before a person may sue in federal court under the Civil Rights Act.

Certain Givens

Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic Schoolteachers, said while Curay-Cramer has a right to her own opinion on Church teaching, she doesn't have the right to “publicly flaunt a lifestyle or anything that is against the teachings.

“She certainly could not come out and say she is in favor of a woman's right to choose when she's teaching the students in her class,” she said. “And basically that's what she did by putting her name to an ad that was going to be in a newspaper.

“When people go to work for the Catholic Church, there are certain givens,” she explained. “If you publicly go against the teachings of the Church, they have no recourse but to [fire the employee].”

Robert Muise, an attorney with the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., agreed.

“For her to publicly express a view that is so contrary to very clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church, it is clear that she is not in accord with the Church's teaching,” he said. “The Church has every right to say that she can no longer consider herself to be a Catholic teacher in our schools.”

Muise said Curay-Cramer's attorney faces an uphill battle. “They recognize that is a very difficult problem with the case, so they're bootstrapping a gender-discrimination claim associated with it,” he said.

The National Catholic Educational Association declined to comment on the case.

Neuberger, in representing Curay-Cramer, hopes to take the gender-discrimination issue even further by accessing Ursuline's employee records, hoping to find evidence of different treatment of male employees.

“They replaced her with a man,” he said. “I believe they're being too hard on the women. I don't think this would have happened if she were a man.”

But Willoughby said such claims are baseless.

“That borders on the laughable,” he said. “Her own allegations and newspaper accounts say that she expected that she would be fired for doing this. Then to turn around and say that if she were a man this wouldn't have happened is just silly.”

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.