Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 15, 2023 / 13:10 pm (CNA).
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld a Catholic school’s ability to enforce an employee code of conduct in line with Catholic moral teaching and to fire teachers for violating that code.
The ruling in Victoria Crisitello v. St. Theresa School further solidifies the ability of New Jersey religious schools of all types to enforce moral codes of conduct in line with their religious practice.
“This ruling provides Catholic schools in New Jersey with a significant new protection against lawsuits brought by employees who do not follow a school’s code of conduct,” Eric Rassbach, an attorney with Becket, a law firm specializing in religious freedom cases, told CNA.
Becket filed an amicus brief in support of St. Theresa School on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization.
“As the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized, religious schools have a right to require their teachers to follow their faith in word and in deed,” Rassbach said, adding that “although the ruling centers on New Jersey law, it will have knock-on effects around the country as a persuasively written decision.”
Rassbach emphasized that just like Catholic or other religious schools, “it is crucial for Orthodox Jewish institutions in New Jersey to have autonomy in religious matters.”
The case revolved around Victoria Crisitello, a former art teacher at St. Theresa Catholic School in Kenilworth, New Jersey, in the Archdiocese of Newark.
Crisitello’s employment was terminated because she violated the terms of her contract by engaging in premarital sex, according to court documents. Crisitello’s contract required that she abide by Catholic moral teaching, including regarding sexual behavior.
St. Theresa’s principal at the time, Sister Theresa Lee, decided to not renew Crisitello’s contract in 2014 after she revealed she was pregnant, despite not being married, according to Becket.
Later that year Crisitello sued the school for discriminating against her based on her pregnancy and marital status.
St. Theresa’s responded by arguing that “Crisitello was not terminated because of her pregnancy” but rather “she was terminated for violation of the Code of Professional and Ministerial Conduct” and for “not following the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith by engaging in sex outside of marriage.”
Though Crisitello’s case was originally rejected by a New Jersey trial court, the New Jersey Appellate Division of the Superior Court sided with her, after which St. Theresa’s appealed to the state’s highest court.
The seven-person state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of St. Theresa’s and New Jersey religious schools in its unanimous decision Monday.
In its ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote that “the religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law, including that they abstain from premarital sex.”
“Crisitello, a practicing Catholic and graduate of the St. Theresa School, acknowledged that St. Theresa’s required her to abide by the tenets of the Catholic faith, including that she abstain from premarital sex, as a condition of her employment,” the court ruled. “In other words, St. Theresa’s required adherence to Catholic law, and Crisitello knowingly violated Catholic law.”
Peter Verniero, counsel for St. Theresa School, told CNA that “this is a significant validation of St. Theresa School’s rights as a religious employer.”
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the rights of religious employers to act consistent with their religious tenets, and that the court found that St. Theresa did so here,” Verniero said. “Equally important, the court found no evidence of discrimination in this case.”
“The court’s decision is a big win for religious schools of all faiths,” Becket said in a social media post Monday. “Religious schools exist to instill faith and values in their students as well as a quality education. But to carry out that mission, schools must be able to insist on teachers who follow the faith.”
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