Terminated for Getting Pregnant Out of Wedlock
There are many different forms of pregnancy discrimination. The recent case of a terminated school teacher in Florida demonstrates a particular form of discrimination, actually defended by the assertion of religious beliefs. In that case, a Christian school terminated a pregnant teacher allegedly because she got pregnant before she got married.
Termination based on pregnancy is typically illegal
Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because of her pregnancy. This rule applies to all employers with more than 15 employees. It has become quite common for employers to terminate employees who become pregnant simply because they fear the employee's productivity will decrease or their attendance will be affected. However, more and more, we are seeing employers who terminate their employees for pregnancy-related reasons that are purportedly based in religious beliefs.
What about the right to religious freedom?
The First Amendment provides the right to freely exercise your religion. This right applies to private, religious-affiliated employers, as well. So, what happens when the prohibition against discrimination is met with the assertion of a right to exercise religious beliefs? Private individuals or entities who choose to establish a private religious school are allowed to do so, and they are basically free to implement policies consistent with their religious beliefs. However, they are not free to force those beliefs on anyone else. Legally, courts are required to strike a balance between the constitutional rights of religious organizations, and the rights of employees to be free from unlawful discrimination.
How courts strike a balance
When an employee whose position at a religious organization specifically involves religious duties, for example a priest or minister, the organization is generally exempt from most discrimination laws, if the discrimination is required by their religion. In other words, a Catholic church cannot be forced to hire female priests, as their religious beliefs do not allow it. However, when a position is essentially secular in nature, all employment discrimination laws will apply.
How do these issues play out at religious schools?
Consider, for example, a janitor at a Christian school. As the janitor's duties are primarily secular, he could not be terminated simply because he does not hold the same religious beliefs as the school administration. But, what about a teacher at a Christian school? It depends on whether her particular duties are basically secular. For instance, if she teaches religious studies, then she may be exempt from the protections of anti-discrimination laws, as they relate to religion. In fact, any employee who is charged with instilling the students with the religious values the school professes, would be exempt.
Job duties may not be the only consideration
So, if a teacher's courses include math or English, then it would be easier to argue that her religious values are irrelevant to her performance as a teacher. However, courts must also consider the extent to which the school actually implements its religious values in the classroom. The general nature of the school and its teachings is an important aspect to be considered. Some religious schools accept students from different faiths and some do not teach their religious beliefs in the classroom. This can weigh heavily on the consideration of whether the schools religious beliefs are actually a legitimate basis for discrimination.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.