The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that religious institutions can fire an employee for failing to follow the tenets of their religions, such as a Catholic school firing an employee because she had premarital sex.
Victoria Crisitello worked for the St. Theresa School as an art teacher and toddler room caregiver. St. Theresa’s requires its employees, including Ms. Crisitello, to sign employment agreements that require them to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. For example, they had to agree to follow the Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct adopted by the Archdiocese of Newark.
Among other things, those Policies forbid engaging in “[a]dultery, flagrant promiscuity or illicit co-habitation.” Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church prohibits sex outside of marriage, which the Church considers to be a sin.
St. Theresa’s fired Ms. Crisitello, who was not married, after it learned that she had become pregnant, and replaced her with another employee who is a married woman with children. Ms. Crisitello sued St. Theresa’s for marital status and pregnancy discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).
Although the LAD prohibits pregnancy and marital status discrimination, it also has a provision which states that is not unlawful “for a religious association or organization … in following the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee.”
The trial court granted St. Theresa’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that provision protects religious institutions when they fire employees for failing to abide by their religious principles, such as principles of the Catholic faith. It explained that there was no evidence that St. Theresa’s fired Ms. Cristiello for being pregnant, but rather it fired her for violating tenets of the Catholic Church. In doing so, it relied on the fact that St. Theresa’s did not fire numerous other pregnant employees who were married, but did fire an unmarried male employee after he got his girlfriend pregnant.
Ms. Crisitello appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed. It ruled that a religious institution cannot use a religious tenet as a basis to cover up pregnancy or marital status discrimination, and sent the case back to the lower court. However, the trial court dismissed the case for a second time, prompting Ms. Crisitello to appeal again. The Appellate Division once again reversed the trial court. This time, however, St. Theresa’s asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear the case.
On August 14, 2023, in Victoria Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division. It explained that the LAD’s religious tenets exception is an affirmative defense, meaning the employer has to prove it applies. More specifically, the Supreme Court explained that there is no violation of the LAD if a religious association or organization can prove it followed the tenets of its religion to establish criteria for employment.
The Supreme Court concluded that the evidence undisputedly demonstrates that St. Theresa’s fired Ms. Crisitello solely because she engaged in premarital sex, which violated an employment criteria established based on a tenet of the Catholic faith, namely the Archdiocese’s Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct prohibition against adultery, promiscuity and co-habitation.
The Court found St. Theresa’s consistently indicated that it fired Ms. Crisitello because she violated Catholic law by engaging in premarital sex, rather than because she was pregnant or not married. In contrast, Ms. Crisitello failed to present evidence showing that St. Theresa’s actually discriminated against her based on her pregnancy or marital status. In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that St. Theresa’s did not fire married employees who became pregnant, and employs individuals who are both married and single. Accordingly, the Court concluded that St. Theresa’s proved it followed the tenets of its religion to establish a criteria for Ms. Crisitello’s employment, and did not violate the LAD when it fired her for violating that tenet.