Catholic Church to rewrite teacher contracts

The 2013-2014 employment contract for schoolteachers in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati includes a new provision: Teachers must agree that they are “ministerial” employees subject to a morals clause requiring them to live in accordance with Catholic teachings, inside and outside the classroom, regardless of their own personal faith.

Officials of the 19-county archdiocese that covers southwest Ohio added the provision as two former teachers pressed federal lawsuits contending the archdiocese discriminated against them by firing them for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. One of those teachers, Christa Dias of Clermont County, won a $170,000 judgment against the archdiocese after a jury found in her favor Monday. An archdiocesan spokesman said an appeal is “under consideration.”

The case represents the latest skirmish in the struggle between two constitutionally protected concepts: religious liberty and individual freedom from discrimination.

Church officials fired Dias and former Ascension School teacher Kathleen Quinlan of Kettering in 2010 and 2011, respectively, saying they violated their employment contracts by becoming pregnant out of wedlock in violation of Catholic teachings. Attorneys for the archdiocese said the women, as teachers, fall under a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws recognized, but not clearly defined, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a decision that may have implications in Quinlan’s federal lawsuit and other cases, the Dias jury found the archdiocese discriminated against her by firing her for becoming pregnant through artificial insemination, even though she had signed a contract with a morals clause. Artificial insemination is considered immoral under Catholic teachings.

Attorney Robert Klingler of Cincinnati, who is representing both women, said the new contract provision, which for the first time specifies that teachers are ministerial employees, is an “unenforceable attempt” by the archdiocese to sidestep federal anti-discrimination law. He said federal law trumps any contract that requires employees to waive their legal rights.

“I respect the Catholic Church. I have no desire to criticize the church or its policies overall,” Klingler said. But “it’s one thing to have the ministers follow Catholic teachings. It’s another thing to force everyone in the building to abide by principles that would otherwise violate federal law.”

Under federal law, employers are not permitted to discriminate against women for becoming pregnant.

Klingler said the ministerial exception will come up in the Quinlan case, which is set for trial April 14, 2014, in U.S. District Court in Dayton. He declined to comment further on Quinlan’s case.

The previous employment contract, signed by Dias and Quinlan, required schoolteachers to follow Catholic teachings. The new contract is more specific, spelling out that teachers are ministerial employees who must accept “certain proscriptions on personal behavior not adhering to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that could be detrimental to the employee’s ability to serve as a Catholic role model.”

Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said officials have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the Dias decision.

“We, the archdiocese, have always seen this case as an employee breaking a legally enforceable contract that she signed,” he said. “The plaintiff’s attorney sees this as a case of pregnancy discrimination.”

The Cincinnati archdiocese runs the eighth largest Catholic school system in the U.S., with more than 43,000 students and 3,262 professional staff in 2011-2012, according to its website.

In a two-year process to gather input for a 2012 overhaul of parochial schools, archdiocesan officials learned that the schools’ “Catholic identity is one of the things our parents value most of all,” Andriacco said. “We believe we have a right to give our Catholic parents what they expect, which is an environment that (supports) Catholic teachings.”

In a pretrial decision, U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel ruled the ministerial exception didn’t apply to Dias and allowed the trial to go forward. Andriacco said Quinlan’s case is a “different situation,” and “in the case in Dayton, we believe the employee was clearly covered by the ministerial exception.”

But Klingler said the archdiocese’s policies have the effect of singling out unwed pregnant women for termination because their condition is outwardly obvious.

“Other people’s indiscretions just kind of slide by,” he said. “They (officials) kind of pick and choose which indiscretions are worth firing someone over. The only people who end up getting targeted are pregnant women who can’t hide their situation.”

Klingler said the Dias ruling doesn’t prevent the schools from teaching Catholic principles.

“I don’t think this decision is in any way a threat to the character of Catholic schools,” he said.

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