New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination and harassment based on a litany of protected classes, including actual or perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. The law applies to discrimination in housing, public accommodation, and employment, and its coverage extends to marital status and pregnancy – people cannot be discriminated against for being married, unmarried, or expecting a child. Yet despite these clear prohibitions, in 2014 the St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, New Jersey fired art teacher Victoria Crisitello when she informed the school’s principal Sister Theresa Lee that she was expecting a baby.

The revelation of Crisitello’s pregnancy took place when she had asked the principal about taking on additional duties within the school, and being compensated for the added responsibility. Weeks later the teacher’s employment was terminated: she was told that because she was unmarried, her pregnancy violated church law, which the school maintains “permeates every classroom.” Despite the lack of faith-oriented teaching during her art classes and the lack of explicit prohibitions against premarital sex in the school’s handbook, the school claimed that what their faith defined as immoral conduct and adultery were grounds for dismissal.

In the face of Ms. Crisitello’s wrongful termination lawsuit citing New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, the school has defended itself by arguing that they are protected under the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” and that disallowing the school’s ability to choose their own employees robs them of their religious autonomy.

The ministerial exception allows religious employers to take actions that would otherwise be considered discriminatory when their employees are considered ministerial. The school’s attorney asserts that as a teacher, Ms. Crisitello was expected to be “a propagator of the faith, a defender of the faith,” despite the fact that no religious teaching was included in the curriculum for which she was responsible.

The case raises important and fascinating issues for both the state fand for other religious organizations, including the over 250 Catholic schools in the state and countless colleges and healthcare facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes. If the court sides with St. Theresa, the ministerial exception could be applied to every employee of these organizations, allowing any of them to similarly lose the protections offered by NJLAD.

Among the points raised by Ms. Crisitello’s attorney is the uneven application of the school’s purported policy: not only was the rule not explicitly included in the handbook, but other employees were not asked whether they too engaged in premarital sex.
The art teacher was singled out as a result of volunteering her status to the principal.

Ms. Crisitello’s position is being supported by New Jersey Solicitor General Jeremy Feigenbaum, who is asserting that the action taken against her was both discriminatory and inappropriate because her position within the school was exclusive of ministerial teaching or duties.

The pleadings before the state Supreme Court follow the school having successfully dismissed Crisitello’s complaint for damages, and a decision by the Superior Court of New Jersey’s which reversed that summary judgment decision. Among the reasons for reversal given by the Superior Court was the fact that there was “no evidence showing that men are treated the same way as women who are terminated for engaging in premarital sex.” The court said that the school’s policty of termination “punishes only women for [premarital] sexual relations because those relations are revealed through pregnancy.”

Following the Superior Court’s decision the school again filed for and was granted summary judgment, which Crisitello again appealed based on the lack of a specific policy explaining that an employee could be terminated for premarital sex, and asserting that it was only due to her employer’s discovery of her pregnancy that she had been fired. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court reversed the second summary judgment, holding that “knowledge or mere observation of an employee’s pregnancy alone is not a permissible basis to detect violations of the school’s policy and terminate an employee.” This decision led to last month’s hearing before the state’s highest court.

As the court considers the arguments, interested parties from both sides have expressed significant concern about the impact of their decision. While the attorney representing the school suggests that religious employers would be exposed to “unfounded interrogations” of their reasons for terminating employees, while those arguing that the school’s actions violate the NJLAD assert that “thousands and thousands and thousands of New Jerseyans” could lose their rights.

If you are facing discrimination, harassment, or wrongful termination based on your membership of a class that is protected under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, we can help. Contact us today to schedule a time for us to discuss your situation.