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.

In disagreeing with and reversing the Appellate Division the New Jersey Supreme Court first reviewed how the LAD prohibits discrimination based on martial or pregnancy status. However, the Court also took notice of the fact that the LAD expressly excludes from its protection the employment practices of a religious association or organization where it follows “the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee” N.J.S.A., 10:5-12(a). Therefore, our State Supreme Court concluded that for employers who are religious associations or organizations the LAD provides two types of conduct that will not give rise to a cause of action: (1) the use of religious affiliation as a job qualification for “employees engaged in the religious activities” of the organization; and (2) “following the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee.” *29. Based on this religious carve-out in the LAD, our State Supreme Court agreed with St. Theresa’s that the religious tenets exception is an affirmative defense which must be pled and proven, and the party asserting it carries both the burden of production and persuasion. Id.  It further agreed with St. Theresa’s that the religious tenets exception under the LAD permitted the school to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law, including that they abstain from premarital sex. Crisitello, a practicing Catholic and prior graduate of the St. Theresa School, had acknowledged how St. Theresa’s required her to abide by the tenets of the Catholic faith, including that she abstain from premarital sex, and that this tenet was a condition of her employment. *37.

The Court ultimately concluded that St. Theresa’s had validly asserted the religious tenets exception as an affirmative defense and that Crisitello had not raised any genuine dispute of material fact regarding the applicability of that defense. *35. Hence, St. Theresa’s was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Id.

If you believe you are the victim of a hostile work environment, different treatment, retaliation of wrongful discharge because of your pregnancy, marital status or sincerely held religious beliefs, call Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. Our attorneys are well experienced in handling all types of discrimination, unlawful retaliation, and wrongful discharge claims. At Mashel Law, LLC, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.

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