When the principal of the St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, New Jersey fired Victoria Crisitello seven years ago, she told the elementary school art teacher she was being let go because she was “unmarried and pregnant.” Since that time, Crisitello has been to court several times over what she claims was a discriminatory firing. Following two failed appeals by the school administration, the New Jersey state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
The stakes are high for both sides. The school administration has said that the case is about the “fundamental freedom of religion,” and claims that their actions were not discriminatory because they were about a basic tenet of their Catholic religion. The school’s attorneys explain that “sex out of wedlock violates a fundamental Catholic belief that the school in this instance felt it could not overlook.”
Crisitello argues that the firing was specifically about her gender and represented a sexual double standard because the school had not taken action to determine whether other staff members had also engaged in sex out of wedlock. In previous depositions the principal acknowledged that no efforts had been made to find out whether any other staff members were engaged in extramarital sex. Crisitello’s attorney argues that the school used her pregnancy as evidence that could only be used against a woman, saying, “If you’re going to punish someone for doing something, it has to be applied equally and evenly.”
Though the school argued in court that they had fired a male teacher at another school in the archdiocese after determining that his girlfriend had become pregnant, the New Jersey appellate court wrote that there was no evidence that the school had attempted to apply its moral stance in the same way to men as to women, writing, “While a religious school employer may validly seek to impose moral doctrine upon its teaching staff, punishment singularly directed at the Hester Prynnes, without regard to the Arthur Dimmesdales, is not permissible.” The judge’s statement references female and male characters in the novel The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman was punished for having sex while her male partner was not.
The outcome of the case will be of particular interest to religious organizations across the state, as it would become the final word on questions of whether religious organizations can fire teachers over pregnancies. The Archdiocese is currently relying on the 2020 Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, which said that lay teachers, religious teachers and other staff at religious schools are not protected by federal employment discrimination laws.
If you believe you have been fired or faced a negative employment outcome in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, we can help. Contact our office today to set up a time to discuss your case.