New Jersey Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic school that fired a teacher for having premarital sex

Aug 16, 2023, 4:19 PM

The exterior of the St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, a borough about 10 miles west of Newark, is p...

The exterior of the St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, a borough about 10 miles west of Newark, is pictured here. (Stephanie Keith/The New York TImes/Redux)

(Stephanie Keith/The New York TImes/Redux)

(CNN) —The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Catholic school that terminated a teacher for having premarital sex, according to court documents.

Victoria Crisitello began as a caregiver at St. Theresa School in Kenilworth in 2011, and in 2014, the school’s principal, Sister Theresa Lee, approached Crisitello about teaching art full-time, court documents say.

Crisitello, who was unmarried, told the principal she was pregnant during that meeting, according to the documents.

Crisitello alleged that a few weeks later, Lee said she violated the school’s Code of Ethics by engaging in premarital sex. Crisitello said her contract was terminated and she was replaced by a teacher who was married and had children, according to court documents.

Crisitello filed a lawsuit in April 2014 against St. Theresa School, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, court documents say. She argued her firing was a “‘mere pretext’ for pregnancy and marital-status discrimination,” according to the lawsuit.

On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school. The court held that religious entities could use religious tenet exceptions of state employment law as an “affirmative defense” in facing claims of employment discrimination, and it was an “uncontroverted fact” that the school followed the Catholic Church’s religious tenets in terminating Crisitello.

“Of course we are disappointed with the decision because it did not go our way,” Crisitello’s attorney, Thomas A. McKinney, said in a statement, “and we don’t think that going forward a pregnant woman will be treated equally based on these policies of the employment.

“We would have liked to see this reminded in court but we understand the decision of the Supreme Court justice and we accept it.”

St. Theresa School argued Crisitello’s pregnancy violated the terms of her employment agreement, which required “employees to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church and refrain from premarital sex,” court documents say.

The school functions under the Roman Catholic administration of the Archdiocese of Newark and follows its code of ethics: Employees are obligated to uphold principles, standards, and teachings of the Catholic Church, according to the documents.

Upon her initial hiring, Crisitello signed a form affirming her compliance with the school’s code of conduct, the documents said.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the rights of religious employers to act consistent with their religious tenets, and that St. Theresa School did so here,” said Peter G. Verniero, the attorney for the St. Theresa School, in a statement to CNN.

The state attorney general expressed disapproval of the court’s decision.

“We are disappointed with today’s decision, but we are grateful that its narrow scope will not impact the important protections the Law Against Discrimination provides for the overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General said in a statement to CNN.

Alexander Shalom, the ACLU’s New Jersey Director of Supreme Court Advocacy, described the ruling as disappointing.

“While we recognize that the United States Supreme Court’s prior decisions provide broad latitude to religious employers regarding hiring and firing, we believe the NJ Supreme Court could have, and should have, held that a second grade art teacher was entitled to the protections of the Law Against Discrimination,” Shalom said in a statement to CNN.

Kenilworth is a borough about 10 miles west of Newark.

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New Jersey Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic school that fired a teacher for having premarital sex