Faith Under Fire: A Despicable Victory Over Religious Rights in America

Dias, who says she is a Christian, presumably thinks that engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, having and lying about an ongoing homosexual relationship, having a friend donate his sperm to as if she were borrowing a cup of sugar, and violating an employment contract are all the actions of a “Christian woman” who “follows the Bible.”

“You didn’t have the slightest idea?” the Cincinnati Enquirer quotes the Archdiocese’s lawyer, Steve Goodin, asking Dias. “You thought there wouldn’t be a problem in Catholic doctrine that a gay woman was going to have a child with a gay man, outside of wedlock, by means of artificial insemination?”

There doesn’t seem to be a contest about Dias violating her contract — she did. The matter at hand is whether she should have been fired for doing so. Commenters on web sites that carry the story are having a field day with that (“Bet that’s the same contract that would have her stoned to death if she went to church during her period,” one person wrote. “This is the Catholic church we’re talking about. They cover up more crap on a daily basis than my dogs do,” wrote another. “The woman may have been a naive, believing her employer might’ve actually entered the 20th century,” wrote a third — all on the same site!) but legally, it seemed to be pretty cut and dried.

The verdict came late Monday and the news reports, though picked by media outlets around the English-speaking world, were light on details. Without seeing details of the jury’s findings, it’s not possible to say why they made their decision.

One clue is that much of the trial focused on the details of the firing. As mentioned above, firing a woman merely for being pregnant is illegal. However, morals clauses that prohibit out-of-wedlock pregnancy and other sexual actions are not illegal, as long as an employer applies them equally to men and women. If Dias argued and proved that male teachers in the Cincinnati Catholic schools network are known to have children outside of marriage and/or to have used artificial insemination within their marriages without being fired for it, that would have been a case for gender discrimination, or that for her being singled out in particular for some other reason.

Except. Except that this case should never have gone to trial in the first place, because Christa Dias was a ministerial employee.

This concept baffles some people. As evidenced in the newspaper and web site comment boxes, many people don’t see why a Catholic school employee who is not Catholic should have to abide by Catholic rules, even if she agrees to do so in writing. Others, like Judge Spiegel, don’t think that someone who teaches anything but religion can be considered a “minister.”

But it’s simple: Government is not supposed to decide who ministers for a religion, that’s the religion’s job. Judges are not supposed to say who is and who is not a ministerial employee, the church (or synagogue, or mosque, or ashram) is. And religions have the right to expect their ministerial employees to teach and live their religious beliefs. For that reason, ministerial employees are exempt from some discrimination laws that would otherwise compel religious organizations to keep ministers they determined unfit to minister.

In this case, the employers were the two schools who hired Dias. All teachers and support staff at a Catholic school are ministers in some sense, whether or not they teach religion. They represent the Catholic Church and are supposed to model Catholic life. When parents send their children to a Catholic school, they don’t say, “I expect the religion teachers to be good models for my children, but I the math, science, and English teachers can be ‘sister wives’ or coven leaders — what do we care?’”

Judge Spiegel has taken far too narrow a view of what a church is, and who a minister is. Like officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, who maintain that only a person who teaches a religion or performs its rites can be considered a religious employee, Judge Siegel mistakes the rites of a religion with the religion itself. In this view, almost everything a church does other than hold services or teach religion class is considered secular — and only secular.

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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