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Court says Catholic school can enforce religious rules on employees

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The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on a First Amendment case this week allowing religious institutions to require employees to follow faith-based principles. The state’s high court said Monday, Aug. 14, that a Catholic school is legally permitted to enforce its religious standards on workers.

St. Theresa School, a Roman Catholic elementary school in Kenilworth, New Jersey, elected not to give Victoria Crisitello a new contract in 2014 when she revealed she was pregnant and unmarried.

The school requires its employees to agree to and follow a Catholic-based code of ethics as a condition of employment. The code of ethics includes a rule prohibiting sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

Crisitello had served as a toddler room caregiver and art teacher starting in 2011, according to the court syllabus. In 2014, the school’s principal asked Crisitello about becoming a full-time art teacher. During their discussion, the unwed Crisitello revealed she was pregnant. Weeks later, the principal told the prospective art teacher that because she had violated the school’s code of ethics, St. Theresa’s would not be offering her a new contract and she could not remain on staff.

Crisitello sued the school, alleging it had discriminated against her based on pregnancy and marital status.

A state superior court ruled in favor of the school, saying the law “protects a religious institution … in requiring that an employee … abide by the principles of the Catholic faith.” The court added that Crisitello was not fired “for her pregnancy or marital status, per se” but for “violating the tenets of the Catholic Church, thereby violating the Code of Ethics,” which she had signed.

A state appellate court reversed the ruling and remanded it to the lower court. On remand, the superior court again ruled in favor of St. Theresa’s, and again, the appellate court reversed the lower court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court took the case and declared that St. Theresa’s was within its rights to follow the tenets of its faith “in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment” and that Crisitello had failed to show she was dismissed for any reason other than what St. Theresa’s said was an ethics violation.

According to the court syllabus, “[I]t is uncontroverted that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church in terminating Crisitello. St. Theresa’s was therefore entitled to summary judgment and the dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.”

Becket Law, a religious liberty legal group, filed an amicus brief with the state Supreme Court in support of St. Theresa’s on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group representing Jewish schools in New Jersey. In the case, Becket argued, “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.”

In a press release Monday, Becket called the ruling “a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey” that is “especially important for Orthodox Jews.”

“There are too many examples in history of governments interfering with Jewish schools, or worse,” the organization said. “Today the Court did the right thing for Orthodox Jews and all other New Jerseyans by stopping this attempt to drag government into direct control of religious schools.”

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