The case of Christa Dias left many Catholics scratching their heads earlier this year. Ms. Dias, an unmarried young woman who taught computers at two Archdiocese of Cincinnati Catholic elementary schools, was fired after she became pregnant by artificial insemination. She won her suit against the Archdiocese even though she had signed a contract promising not to act in a manner unbecoming of a Catholic school teacher.
Ms. Dias also had a lesbian partner, whom she kept secret from her employers because she knew the relationship would violate the contract. She shared the AI information, she later claimed, because she thought the Archdiocese would consider artificial insemination to be a morally acceptable kind of out-of-wedlock pregnancy because it did not involve sexual intercourse with a man.
Catholics familiar with the Church’s teaching know that artificial insemination is considered gravely immoral, whether the mother is married or not, and regardless of her sexual orientation. As Ms. Dias clearly violated her contract, both secretly and publicly, many wondered how she could possibly have won her suit.
The win was hailed as a victory by numerous gay and lesbian groups, although her sexual orientation had nothing to do with the case. Those who saw the case as a clear violation of contract law, on the other hand, saw it as an ominous sign of things to come.
An ominous sign it may be, but not for contract law. What most stories, national and regional, missed about the case was that it had nothing to do with contract law at all. Months before it went to trial, a judge ruled that Dias’s case could proceed on the basis of pregnancy discrimination.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination for reason of race, color, religion sex, or national origin. Pregnancy was added to the list of prohibited reasons in 1978, and age and disability were added in 1990. People cannot be fired if any of these factors are a reason (not necessarily the major or only reason) for the firing.
The only exception to this laws are churches — not because it’s all right for churches to fire people for any of those reasons, but because US law recognizes that churches have the ultimate say in who ministers for them. If a minister is violating a church’s teachings or otherwise not doing what the church wants, the law recognizes that he or she can be fired even if one of the prohibited reasons is also a factor.
And because churches can have more than one sort of employee, the only church employees exempt from equal opportunity law are “ministerial” employees. Those who minister, no matter what their titles, are exempt; those who don’t minister (a janitor, a business manager, etc.) are not exempt. A church can in theory fire a troublesome chaplain who is in his late 60s without being sued for age discrimination, but not a janitor or groundskeeper the same age.
Dias’s lawyer, Robert Klingler, argued that because Dias taught computers she was not a “minister” of the church and thus that her contract was irrelevant because federal equal opportunity law “trumps” contract law — which is not quite true, but is close enough to the truth for government work. In February, Judge Arthur Spiegel agreed, ruling that Dias could not be considered a ministerial employee. After that, the verdict was nearly inevitable.
The lawyer for the Archdiocese and the two schools, Steve Goodin, said that the jury could still have ruled against Dias because juries are allowed to find that contract law still applies in such cases. But they rarely do, he said, because discrimination as a factor is easy to prove while equal application of a contract provision over many cases and many years is difficult to prove, and jurors can find it irrelevant.
In this case, Goodin argued that Dias was fired for violating Catholic teachings on artificial insemination, that those teachings were consistently applied to both men and women, and thus that the terms of her contract should still apply. He also argued that, as Dias was violating her contract by having a lesbian relationship and keeping it secret on purpose, she had voided any right to have the contract honored in court.
But the argument was a longshot, he said, because Dias’s pregnancy was a given. His job was to convince that a pregnancy discrimination decision in Dias’s favor was optional, while Klingler’s job was simply to convince the jury to ignore anything but the pregnancy.
Klingler’s strategy worked. Indeed, one of the jurors (“Ron”) who appeared on a Cincinnati radio program to explain the decision said that the jury understood their instructions from the judge to be that “if pregnancy was a motivating factor, it was impossible for her to waive her rights.” Echoing Klingler’s words, Ron said that “her rights trumped the contract — the contract is what it is, but it’s trumped.”
The lesson here for churches is that what Judge Spiegel did months before the trial determined the outcome. Judge Spiegel said that Dias could not be considered a ministerial employee even though the schools she worked at, like religious schools all over the country, had changed their contracts so that all teachers acknowledge that they are ministerial employees.
This is the grounds for an appeal, if one is made. Ignoring the 2012 US Supreme Court’s ruling on Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, a landmark equal opportunity case involving a teacher fired from a Lutheran school despite having a disability she credibly claimed was the reason for the firing, the Ohio judge decided that he — not the Catholic Church — had the power to decide what school employees could be considered “ministers.”
While at first glance this might not seem particularly controversial, the implications are wide-ranging. If a judge, not a church, decides who ministers for a church and what ministry means, church autonomy is gravely threatened.
Indeed. in this case a priest brought in to testify about Catholic moral teaching was cross-examined not about whether artificial insemination is really condemned by the Church, but about whether it ought to be.
This ought to give anyone pause, Catholic or not.
Something is very wrong with the verdict in this case, and to see what it is one must look beyond the abstract legal points to the particular case in question.
At a Catholic school, which exists in part to teach the Catholic faith to children, one of the teachers violated a large number of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. Because she “only” taught computers, and because her violations of moral teachings resulted in a pregnancy, the schools were told that they had no right to fire her.
Parents were in effect told that they had no right to expect that teachers at Catholic schools should be role models for Catholic morality — unless they teach religion, that is. Otherwise, they are to be regarded no differently from the janitors and the bus drivers. And apparently, given public reaction to the verdict, a lot of people agree.
If religious freedom is to be preserved, these cases must be fought at the point where they’re really decided. When Judge Spiegel made his ruling on how the case could proceed, the outcome in Judge Sandra Dlott’s court was almost assured. To take back the autonomy guaranteed to them by the Constitution, churches must be clear about who ministers for them and what ministry means. They must enforce that understanding across the board and in all cases, losing otherwise valuable employees if necessary.
Most of all, they must insist on government at all levels recognizing that they, and they alone, determine who their ministers are. Otherwise, to use juror Ron’s words, they’ll find their teachings “trumped.”
cover image: shutterstock