The firm represented the National Women’s Law Center, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and 26 other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief in a significant case testing the workplace protections available to employees of religious schools. Submitted to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the brief argues in support of Victoria Crisitello, an unmarried art teacher at a Catholic elementary school whose employer fired her after learning that she was pregnant.
Victoria worked first as a teacher’s aide in the toddler room and then as an art teacher at the school. She never taught religion as part of her job duties. She also did not participate in any religious activities at the school, such as leading the students in prayer or attending mass. The school told Victoria that she was being fired pursuant to its general employee ethics code because her pregnancy violated the Catholic Church’s views on premarital sex.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) protects employees from discrimination based on marital status, sex, and pregnancy. Victoria filed a complaint against the school for violating her rights under the LAD, claiming in part that the school discriminatorily singled her out for punishment based on these protected grounds. The trial court and two intermediate appellate courts agreed that Victoria had a right to pursue a LAD claim.
On appeal to the state’s highest court, Victoria’s employer is arguing that it is not subject to the LAD because the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” applies to her. This exception protects the autonomy of religious institutions to make internal management decisions essential to their core mission. When it applies, it exempts the institutions from nondiscrimination laws such as the LAD.
Our brief argues that the ministerial exception does not apply because Victoria was an art teacher and did not perform any “vital religious duties” that would make her a “ministerial” employee. The brief explains that applying the exception in this case would extend the doctrine beyond recognition because it would allow religious institutions to determine unilaterally when the exception applies without consideration of an employee’s actual duties. Under this rationale, janitors, school bus drivers, secretaries, nurses, or any employee of a religious institution (including religiously affiliated schools and hospitals) could lose workplace protections. The brief describes the harms that would flow from this outcome, in particular to women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other at-risk groups.
A decision in the case remains pending.
Our brief argues that the ministerial exception does not apply because Victoria was an art teacher and did not perform any “vital religious duties” that would make her a “ministerial” employee.