On November 19, 2020, New Jersey’s Appellate Division issued a precedential decision in the matter of Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, Docket No. A-4713-18T3 (App. Div. 2020). The case arose from the school, a private, primary school operated by a Roman Catholic parish church, terminating a lay employee (non-clergy) teacher. The teacher, who taught art and had no responsibility for explicit religious instruction, was terminated after it was revealed that she was pregnant. The school contended that her pregnancy was the result of her engaging in premarital sex, which violated Catholic teaching and the school’s code of ethics.
The trial court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit after discovery, finding that although plaintiff had presented a prima facie case of discrimination, that the defendant produced a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her termination – in this case, the violation of the school’s code of ethics. Once this is done, the burden returns to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination was “pretextual,” and in this instance, the trial court held that the record was “bare of any evidence that even remotely suggest[ed]” that her termination was pretextual.
On appeal, the three-judge panel of the Appellate Division reversed. The Court noted that there was no dispute that a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination had been pleaded. The defendant did dispute that plaintiff had been terminated because she had engaged in premarital sex, and further did not dispute that the only basis for the defendant knowing this was plaintiff’s pregnancy. The Court then turned to the “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason for plaintiff’s termination – and determined that even assuming such a reason was provided, plaintiff had to demonstrate that the basis for the termination was pretextual.
The Court ultimately adopted rationales from other jurisdictions, and held that “Defendant cannot enforce its prohibition by only disciplining women whose premarital sexual relations are disclosed through their pregnancy.” There was no other indication that other school employees had been questioned or that there was any other enforcement of the school’s prohibition on premarital sex. Plaintiff in this case adduced evidence that “no effort was made to determine whether any employees other than a pregnant lay teacher violated any of the proscriptions contained” in the defendant’s code of conduct, and as such, the court vacated summary judgment and determined that there was a sufficient dispute of fact on the issue of pretext.