May 3, 2012
Christian School Teachers Fired for Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancies
Were the firings legal? A recent Supreme Court ruling sheds light.
Two female teachers at Christian schools in different parts of the country were recently fired for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, according to Cincinnati.com News and WFAA-TV. Both women are working with lawyers on separate lawsuits against the schools in Ohio and Texas.
A January decision from the Supreme Court on ministerial exception plays a large role in whether or not a court will allow such lawsuits. In that ruling, the Court affirmed the ministerial exception, which bars courts from reviewing employment disputes between churches and ministers. The case involved a Christian school in Michigan that fired a teacher. The Court decided that the First Amendment prevents courts from “interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select” their clergy, and, based on various criteria, the teacher could be classified as a minister.
In Ohio, a U.S. District Court judge determined the teacher wasn't a minister, and her lawsuit could proceed, according to an Associated Press story. In this case, the woman is a Protestant Christian, fired by a Catholic school for becoming pregnant out of wedlock through artificial insemination--which is considered immoral and in violation of Roman Catholic Church teaching.
The judge says the teacher did not qualify as a minister because she is not Catholic, other non-Catholics had been hired, and non-Catholics could not teach religion classes.
In Texas, a Christian school teacher also was fired for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, according to Dallas/Fort Worth news station WFAA-TV. The school headmaster says the school considers teachers as ministers and is aware of the January Supreme Court ruling. The school refuses to settle the case.
Richard Hammar writes in depth about the Supreme Court's ministerial exception ruling and how it applies to churches in a Feature Report from Church Law & Tax Report, “What the ‘Ministerial Exception’ Ruling Means for Churches.” Rich provides a four-factor test applied by the Supreme Court in its January decision:
- the formal job title given by the church
- if ministerial status was conferred following religious training or exams
- if the individual holds himself or herself out as a minister (by claiming a housing allowance or accepting a formal call to religious service)
- if job duties convey the church’s message and mission
Rich then applies that four-factor test to several common scenarios for churches or church-run schools to help gauge when a staff member may be considered a minister.
Churches that run schools should review whether or not their teachers qualify as ministers. Churches may also need to review various staff positions to determine if they qualify as ministerial as well.