The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati was ordered to pay a former teacher $171,000 earlier this week. A federal jury decided Christa Dias was wrongfully terminated when she was fired by her Catholic school after she became pregnant.
Dias told the Cincinnati Enquirer she’s happy about the verdict:
“I was relieved. It’s been a very, very long road,” Dias said after the verdict before U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott.
“Now, I can go on with my life.”
The Catholic Church had argued that because Dias signed a contract with the diocese, one that included a morality clause based on Catholic doctrine, she violated her contract when she chose to become pregnant out of wedlock and through artificial insemination.
Dias’ argument hinged on the idea that she is not a ministerial employee. That is to say, she does not perform the duties of a minister, and therefor she is not exempt from federal and state laws governing the workplace.
Those laws include forbidding discrimination against pregnant women.
Ministerial employees fall under what is known as a ministerial exemption, intended to defend the freedom of religion, and by extension the freedom of religious institutions to hire and fire employees as they see fit.“An employer cannot get around federal anti-discrimination laws by having their employees sign contracts that agree essentially to permitting the employers to violate those laws,” says Dias’ lawyer, Robert Klingler.
“She wasn’t even a Catholic and because she wasn’t a Catholic she wasn’t even permitted to teach religion even if she had wanted to,” he says. ”All she did was take care of the school’s computer system and teach the children how to use computers.”
Back in August, while the Dias’ case was ongoing but long before it was settled, the Cincinnati Archdiocese revised their teacher contracts to expressly say all teachers who sign the contract do in fact count as ministerial employees.
“…understand and fulfill his/her duties as a Ministerial employee of the School/Educational Office and serve as a Catholic role model, inside and outside of the classroom, regardless of his/her personal beliefs or other religious affiliation; comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church(these can be found in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,”http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM available online), which include certain proscriptions on personal behavior not adhering to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that could be detrimental to the Employee’s ability to serve as a Catholic role model; comply with the policies and directives of the School/Educational Office and the Archdiocese, including without limitation the Archdiocese’s “Ethics and Conduct Policy”; and comply fully with the Ohio Catholic School Accrediting Association;”
Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the diocese says the decision to change the contact language was much bigger than the Dias case.
“Our schools are Catholic schools and that’s very important to us,” Andriacco says. “So we really see each of our schools as being an extension of our ministry.”
Andriacco says teachers usually sign their contracts in May, and as far as he knows there have been no problems getting teachers to sign these new contracts for next year. He says it’s possible the diocese may decide to revisit the contract language in light of the Dias case ruling at some point.
But Klingler, Dias’ lawyer is unconvinced that the updated contracts would do much to protect the district in any similar disputes in the future.
“My own take on that is that’s not going to be a successful way around federal laws,” he says. “I don’t think you can define by contract who a ministerial employee is.”
Klingler says ultimately, he believes federal law supersedes contract law.