Can a Catholic Church which owns and operates a religious parochial school discharge one of its unmarried teachers because she became pregnant in violation of the Catholic Church’s teachings and her employment contract which both forbade engaging in premarital sex? In Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, 2023 N.J. LEXIS 847 (2023), the New Jersey Supreme Court answered this question in the affirmative when it reversed the Appellate Division’s reversal of a trial court’s grant of summary judgment to St. Theresa’s under the “religious tenets” exception contained in the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) at N.J.S.A., 10:5-12(a).
In response to her firing, plaintiff Crisitello filed a complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court against St. Theresa’s alleging employment discrimination in violation of the LAD based on pregnancy and marital status. St. Theresa’s answered by claiming that their decision to terminate Crisitello was protected by both the First Amendment and LAD. In deciding this case in favor of the defendant the Supreme Court restricted its analysis to the LAD.
At the trial court level, the court concluded that Crisitello had failed to show that St. Theresa’s “proffered reason [for her termination] was false and that the real reason was motivated by discriminatory intent.” *20. However, the Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court 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,” and reaffirming its earlier determination that Crisitello made a prima facie case of discrimination under the LAD. *20-21.