New Jersey Supreme Court Says Religious School Can Fire Teacher for Having Premarital Sex

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On August 14, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion in Crisitello v. St. Theresa School finding in favor of a catholic school that was sued for pregnancy and marital-status discrimination by a former teacher who engaged in pre-marital sex.  This case reaffirms the broad deference religious institutions possess to hire and fire employees in accordance with their religious beliefs and dogma. 

Victoria Crisitello (“Crisitello”) began working as an art teacher and caregiver at The St. Theresa School (“St. Theresa’s” or the “School”) in 2011.  St. Theresa’s is a Roman Catholic elementary school that requires its employees to adhere to the official Archdiocese of Newark’s Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct. The first section of this document entitled Code of Ethics requires that all church personnel “carefully consider each standard in the Code and within the Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct before agreeing to adhere to the standards and continue in service to the Archdiocese.” Crisitello signed two acknowledgement forms that she agreed to abide by all of the policies and the Code of Ethics.

In 2014, Sister Theresa Lee (“Sister Lee”), the school’s Principal, approached Crisitello about transitioning to teach art full-time at St. Theresa’s.  During this conversation, Crisitello told Sister Lee that she was pregnant.  Sister Lee was aware that Crisitello was unmarried, and a few weeks later informed Crisitello that she had violated the Code of Ethics by becoming pregnant while unmarried and, therefore, could not remain employed by St. Theresa’s.  The School thereafter terminated Crisitello’s employment.

Crisitello then filed a lawsuit alleging pregnancy and marital status discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).  The case ultimately made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which found in favor of St. Theresa’s.  In its decision, the Court noted that LAD contains a “religious tenets” exception, which states that it is not an unlawful employment practice for a religious entity to follow the tenets of its faith in making employment decisions.  The Court determined that this “religious tenets” exception is an affirmative defense available to a religious entity in defending against employment discrimination claims, which serves as “an absolute bar to liability” if the employee fails to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the challenged decision relied solely on the school’s religious tenets.  Overall, this practically means that religious institutions can make employment decisions that are in violation of LAD if the decisions are solely based on their religious tenets.

In this case, the Court unanimously found that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church in terminating Crisitello.  Crisitello also acknowledged that she knew premarital sex violated the tenets of the Catholic Church, so she could not claim that those tenets were not violated.  Therefore, the Court found that St. Theresa’s did not violate LAD in terminating Crisitello for engaging in premarital sex.

While a controversial topic, the New Jersey Supreme Court followed a trend of state and federal courts that have supported strong interpretations for religious liberty – both for individuals and religious institutions. Whether this trend continues, and how much farther it could go, bears watching.

As the law continues to evolve on these matters, please note that this article is current as of date and time of publication and may not reflect subsequent developments. The content and interpretation of the issues addressed herein is subject to change. Cole Schotz P.C. disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this publication to the fullest extent permitted by law. This is for general informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Do not act or refrain from acting upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining legal, financial and tax advice. For further information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your firm contact or to any of the attorneys listed in this publication.

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