Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A teacher at a Catholic school gets fired for a discriminatory reason—maybe she was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed time off or maybe he was leading an anti-racism learning session. When the teacher tries to go to court to say, “wait a minute, I have civil rights in the workplace and you can’t fire me because of my race or sex or disability,” their employer claims that because the teacher is a “minister,” they have no protections against discrimination at work.
Sound familiar? No, you didn’t get stuck in a time-loop and the TVA isn’t real. Even more upsetting than finding out we’re living in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this week the National Women’s Law Center filed yet another brief in a case to support an employee whose employer is trying to abuse the First Amendment through the “ministerial exception.”
Victoria Crisitello first worked as a teaching aide in the “toddler room” and then as an art teacher at a Catholic elementary school in New Jersey. When Ms. Crisitello told her boss that she was pregnant, instead of supporting her, they told her she should resign or be fired. Why? Because she was not married to her partner at the time she became pregnant, the school claimed that her pregnancy violated their code. Ms. Crisitello sued the school for discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) for discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, and marital status.
Twice the district court in New Jersey tried to throw out Ms. Crisitello’s case and twice the court of appeals reinstated her claims, holding that the school did not enforce their policies consistently, and therefore firing Ms. Crisitello violated the law. Now the school is appealing to the New Jersey Supreme Court to try and have the case thrown out once and for all. In support of that effort, they are claiming that an art teacher, who never taught religion, never prayed with her students, and never counseled them on doctrine or faith, is nevertheless a “minister.” If they win, more teachers and other employees at religiously affiliated institutions could lose their vital workplace civil rights protections and be subjected to discrimination without any remedy or recourse.
That is why NWLC, along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, our pro bono partner Lowenstein Sandler LLP, and 26 additional organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Crisitello. We detailed for the New Jersey Supreme Court the range of harms that could flow from deciding that Ms. Crisitello is a “ministerial”—including, for example, losing protections against sexual harassment, unequal pay, disability discrimination, and claims for overtime pay. We have raised the alarm bells on the ministerial exception before—you can read our briefs in Our Lady of Gudadalupe, Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel, and Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. Just recently there was an alarming decision from the Seventh Circuit that once an employee is deemed a “minister” they aren’t even protected from harassment based on sexual orientation and disability.
Given all that is at stake here, NWLC will continue to fight in solidarity with workers to ensure these crucial workplace civil protections are not denied.