NJ Supreme Court sides with Catholic school that fired unwed pregnant teacher

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By Aliza Chasan

/ CBS News

The Supreme Court of New Jersey on Monday sided with a Catholic school that fired a teacher in 2014 because she became pregnant while unmarried, according to court documents. 

Victoria Crisitello began working at St. Theresa School in Kenilworth as a toddler room caregiver in 2011. She was approached about a full-time job teaching art in 2014, court documents show. During a meeting with the school principal about the position, Crisitello said she was pregnant. Several weeks later, Crisitello was told she’d violated the school’s code of ethics, which required employees to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church, and lost her job.

Crisitello filed a complaint against the school, alleging employment discrimination in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on a number of factors, including an individual’s sex (including pregnancy), familial status, marital/civil union status, religion and domestic partnership status.

But in a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court ruled the firing was legal because the law provides an exception for employers that are religious organizations, allowing those organizations to follow “tenets of their religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment.”

“The religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law, including that they abstain from premarital sex,” the justices ruled. 

A spokesperson for New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General said that while the decision was disappointing, the office was “grateful that its narrow scope will not impact the important protections the Law Against Discrimination provides for the overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans.”

Peter Verniero, an attorney representing the school said, “We are pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the rights of religious employers to act consistent with their religious tenets, and that the Court found that St. Theresa School did so here. Equally important, the Court found no evidence of discrimination in this case. This is a significant validation of St. Theresa School’s rights as a religious employer.”

Similar cases have been heard at the federal level. In a 2020 decision in Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that certain employees of religious schools couldn’t sue for employment discrimination.

ACLU-NJ Director of Supreme Court Advocacy Alexander Shalom said he was disappointed by the decision in the New Jersey case.

“While we recognize that the United States Supreme Court’s prior decisions provide broad latitude to religious employers regarding hiring and firing, we believe the NJ Supreme Court could have, and should have, held that a second grade art teacher was entitled to the protections of the Law Against Discrimination,” Shalom said.

Aliza Chasan

Aliza Chasan is a digital producer at 60 Minutes and CBS News.


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