There’s a cluster of cases in Ohio involving Catholic school teachers fired for being pregnant. I’ve written about these in the past. Each case is different (and indeed one isn’t about ART, really). Now one of these cases–I think the oldest–is now being tried before a jury and so it is time for an update.
The broad issue here is that while the law generally forbids discrimination based on pregnancy and on sex (among other things), the Catholic hierarchy asserts a religious freedom exemption from anti-discrimination laws–at least as they apply to teachers in Catholic Schools. The current case illustrates the point.
It’s quite true that we do often protect religious freedom even when that freedom leads to what would otherwise be unlawful discrimination. To take the obvious, women are disqualified from many jobs in the Church hierarchy by virtue of their sex. But the critical (and unresolved) question is how far does the freedom to discriminate extend? The particular question raised by these cases is whether it extends to teachers–teachers who are teaching distinctly non-doctrinal classes. (The teacher in the current case–Christa Dias–taught computer science.)
Now when you consider the number of people who do not comply with Catholic doctrine (including the vast majority of most practicing Catholics when you come to an issue like birth control) it seems to me that if this position–that you can fire anyone who doesn’t comply with Catholic doctrine–if taken seriously and uniformly enforced-would rather diminish the hiring pool. Therefore that “if uniformly enforced” part is important. And this brings me to the second major issue in these cases: Can the Archdiocese discriminate in selecting which teachers in violation of Catholic doctrine are fired? In other words, does it have to fire all teachers who violate doctrine (or perhaps violate particular doctrines?), or can it fire some but not others? And if the latter, can it fire (say for example) women who violate doctrine but not men? I think one could plausibly conclude that the Church has the right to fire for violations of Catholic doctrine but that it must do so uniformly.
And so to the current case, which I think is the oldest, and is now being tried before a jury. The plaintiff–Christa Dias–testified yesterday. Dias was a computer science teacher at a Catholic school. She was (and I think is) single, she is a lesbian and she got pregnant via assisted insemination (AI). Though there are many potential violations of Catholic doctrine here, she was apparently fired for the last reason–for using AI. (For information on Catholic doctrine about AI you can see the box in this article, which is otherwise coverage of the trial.)
As I said above, this case illustrates the larger debate and you can see the two questions I discussed above: First, was Dias in the kind of job where you can be treated discriminatorily because of our commitment to religious freedom? This is a question of law that ought to be one for the judge and so probably isn’t discussed much at trial. But second, and this would be the trial issue, did the diocese enforce the “abide by doctrine” rule across the board or did it enforce it in a discriminatory manner?
According to the press account, Dias produced a witness–Jack Frazine, who is a married man–who used to work for the diocese. He told them that he and his wife were using AI. He wasn’t fired or in any other way disciplined. Not only that, he worked as a youth minister–a position where I’d think there is surely a greater interest in enforcing doctrinal compliance than there is for a computer science teacher. So why is Dias treated differently from Frazine and is that reason permissible?
There’s an obvious differences between Frazine and Dias. The first is sex. Frazine is male and Dias is female and more particularly, Dias was pregnant as a result of AI while Frazine wasn’t (and would never be). Dias’ pregnant condition is an obvious indicator that she did something while Frazine carries no similar marker. Does this justify firing one and not the other or is that unlawful pregnancy/sex discrimination?
I’m not sure what exactly the jury’s going to be asked to decide here but I’ll keep an eye on it. And if the case doesn’t settle, I’d expect to see an appeal raising some of these important questions.