Seven years after a New Jersey teacher was fired by her Catholic school for her pre-marital pregnancy, the state Supreme Court has stepped in and decided to hear the legal case that followed, which the school administration says could impact the “fundamental freedom of religion.”
St. Theresa School fired Victoria Crisitello, an elementary school art teacher, after learning she was expecting a child. The principal allegedly told her she was fired because she was “unmarried and pregnant,” according to the New York Times.
An appeals court has twice sided with Crisitello in her lawsuit against the school, which argued that her firing was discriminatory. However, last month the state Supreme Court intervened on the school’s behalf and decided to hear the case.
The school argues that the firing was not discriminatory because it was exercising its freedom of religion as “sex out of wedlock violates a fundamental Catholic belief that the school in this instance felt it could not overlook,” the school’s lawyers said.
The school has maintained that the firing is legal under the precedent set by a 2020 Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In that case, the Court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at religious schools, including lay teachers and staff.
While St. Theresa in Kenilworth, the archdiocese that oversees the school, has said the case is a must-win fight for the “fundamental freedom of religion,” Crisitello’s lawyer has argued the case is about gender discrimination, sexual double standards and First Amendment rights.
Thomas McKinney, the teacher’s lawyer, says that because the school’s only evidence that Crisitello violated its morals code was her pregnancy that “only a woman could be punished, not a man.”
The principal said in depositions that she had not made efforts to determine if other staff members were engaged in extramarital sex.
“If you’re going to punish someone for doing something,” he said, “it has to be applied equally and evenly.”
However, the school said in a petition to the court that a male teacher at another school in the archdiocese was also fired after his unmarried girlfriend became pregnant.
New Jersey’s appellate court ruled that there was evidence that the school had not attempted to enforce its morals code equally.
“While a religious school employer may validly seek to impose moral doctrine upon its teaching staff, punishment singularly directed at the Hester Prynnes, without regard to the Arthur Dimmesdales, is not permissible,” the judges quoted, referring to characters from The Scarlet Letter.
Unless overturned, the opinion would serve as the state’s guiding legal standard on the issue. That has underscored the importance of the case for the Archdiocese of Newark.
“This case affects the fundamental freedom of religion not only for the Catholic Church and its institutions, but also for the operations of other religious organizations,” a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Maria Margiotta, said in a statement to the New York Times. “Potentially, all religious organizations, including all Catholic schools in the archdiocese, are impacted.”