I lost an ethics training client over the issue now raising its ethically-muddled head in New Jersey. Several years ago, during a day long seminar I taught for a teachers association, I stated that a teacher who taught grade school, middle school of high school students while pregnant and unmarried was harming her students, and that responsible school were ethically entitled to make pregnancy outside of marriage grounds for dismissal. Literally all of the attendees were outraged (even the two men in the group), though none could articulate a valid argument against what I said. (“The right to choose!” is not a valid argument in this context.)
I was right, they were wrong. The controversy now over a Catholic school art teacher who is demanding that she should have been able to keep her job despite being pregnant is much easier, or should be.
Victoria Crisitello was an art teacher at the New Jersey’s St. Theresa elementary school in Kenilworth. In the course of negotiating for a raise, she mentioned that she was having a baby. Weeks later, she was fired by the principal, a Roman Catholic nun, who explained that she was being terminated “because she was pregnant and unmarried.” “Sex out of wedlock violates a fundamental Catholic belief that the school in this instance felt it could not overlook,” lawyers for St. Theresa’s wrote in a petition to the state Supreme Court. Crisitello’s lawsuit was tossed out by two trial court judges, only to be restored each time when an appeals court sided with the ex-teacher. Now the state’s highest court, acting on an appeal by the school, has agreed review the case, which raises the continuing thorny question about the relationship between the government and religion.
Crisitello’s daughter is seven now; that’s how long the legal battle over the legality of her firing has gone on. Her lawyer argues that the case is about gender discrimination and sexual double standards as well as First Amendment rights, because the principal acknowledged in depositions that she made no effort to determine if other staff members, including men, were engaged in extramarital sex. Because the school’s only proof of a violation of its morals code was the pregnancy itself, “only a woman could be punished, not a man,” the lawyer says. “If you’re going to punish someone for doing something,” he said, “it has to be applied equally and evenly.”
Wow. That lame logic prevailed twice? Being pregnant is like wearing a sign that says, “I have sex out of wedlock!” Did any men wear such a sign? Any other women? Many violations of organization ethics and morals codes for employees involve conduct that the organization cannot and should not inquire about. When the conduct becomes known, however, it is ethical and appropriate for the organization to take action.
How can a religious organization that teaches children that sex without marriage is a sin be credible in that position if its unmarried teachers are pregnant? Obviously, it can’t. Crisitello could “choose” to become pregnant or to engage in conduct that might result in pregnancy, but she was also choosing to do something that disqualified her from teaching at a Catholic school. Teachers are role models, and cognitive dissonance is even more powerful with children than it is with the rest of us. A proudly pregnant teacher not only undermines the Church’s teaching about premarital sex, it undermines the Church’s authority on everything else as well. Crisitello’s lawyer argues that it is important that his client taught art, not religion. Again, that is a weak rationalization. If she taught in a Catholic school, religion was relevant to everything she did and said.
Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers which represents about 3,000 parochial school employees nationwide, was also free with her rationalizations. “The church is supposed to hate the sin, but not hate the sinner,” Schwartz said. “They should be very happy that she’s not having an abortion. Don’t you think?”
Rationalization #22! “It’s not the worst thing.”
“It should have been handled with love,” she blathers. “The whole thing in our religion is not fear. It’s not firing. It’s love. She needs help here. She needs people to work with her, and that’s what they’re supposed to be doing — not ‘Off with her head.’”
She can get help. She just can’t keep teaching children while happily pregnant at a school that says having sex without marriage is wrong.
My position that outraged the teachers in that seminar didn’t involve morality or religion, but ethics. Everyone knows, or should, that getting pregnant without a husband is a likely ticket to a diminished life for both mother and child. Allowing teachers to serve as walking, talking, respected and admired promotions for such irresponsible conduct is a breach of duty for any school.
The law, however, won’t allow non-religious schools to be ethical in that respect, which is one of many reasons our society suffers from so many out-of-wedlock pregnancies.