Catholic School Fires Unmarried Teacher for Becoming Pregnant

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Shaela Evenson, a former schoolteacher at Butte Central Catholic School, a Montana Catholic School, alleged that Butte Central terminated her employment upon learning that she was pregnant while not married. On May 11, 2015, Butte Central filed its answer to Ms. Evenson’s complaint, in which it asserted that as a ministerial employee, Ms. Evenson’s employment was exempt from Title VII. Title VII, among other protections, prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for becoming pregnant.

Ms. Evenson and her partner, Marilyn Tobin, are not married. Upon being hired, Ms. Evenson signed an employment agreement that stated that she agreed to abide by all Butte Central’s rules and regulations, including “all of the moral and religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Church” and that she would not “engage in any personal conduct or lifestyle which would be at variance with or contrary to the polices of the School and the Diocese or the moral and religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”   Presumably, this includes becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

Although a ministerial exception has long been recognized by the Courts of Appeals, not until 2011 did the United States Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) have the opportunity to decide the issue. In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, the Court agreed with Courts of Appeals: “The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punish church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more that a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”   In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a teacher at an Evangelical Lutheran church and school, was terminated after asserting rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court noted three primary considerations: (i) that Petrich received a “diploma of vocation” according her the title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned”; (ii) that she claimed a special housing allowance on her taxes that was available only to employees earning their compensation “ ‘in the exercise of the ministry’ ”; (iii) and her duties included teaching her students religion, leading them in prayer, taking her students to a school-wide chapel service, and leading the chapel service herself twice a year. Although “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualified as minister,” the Court decided that the exception covered Perich. Perich performed “an important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.”

Butte Central cannot likely escape liability under Title VII unless Butte Central can show that Ms. Evenson was similar to Perich and, therefore, a minister.  For nine years, Ms. Evenson taught literature and physical education to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students at Butte Central. She led class prayer, participated in faith activities, attended mass, and took continuing education on the application of Roman Catholic Church doctrine and teaching in the classroom setting; however, she was not Catholic, of which Butte Central was aware, was not assigned to teach religion courses, held no ordination in the Catholic Church, and received no certification in connection with teaching at Catholic schools. Therefore, Ms. Evenson likely did not consitute a “minister.” However, because the approach adopted by SCOTUS requires a fact-intensive inquiry and discovery has not yet completed, this prediction is premature.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.