In 2011, Victoria Crisitello took a part-time job at St.Theresa School, a Catholic school in Kenilworth, New Jersey — the same school she attended as a child. Three years later, the school’s principal approached Crisitello about a full-time job teaching art to elementary school students. If she were to take the job, Crisitello, who was unmarried, told the principal she would need a raise. She was pregnant and would have to arrange childcare for when she was at work. Crisitello was fired a few weeks later, after being informed that she had violated the school’s code of ethics by having premarital sex.
Crisitello sued. Her lawyer — joined by a number of civil rights groups, including the ACLU of New Jersey — argued that the school violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination statute, which prohibits employment discrimination against pregnant people. This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the school was justified in firing Crisitello because New Jersey’s law offers an exception to religious organizations.
“The religious tenets exception [to the law] 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,” the justices wrote. “In other words, St. Theresa’s required adherence to Catholic law, and Crisitello knowingly violated Catholic law.”
According to the New Jersey Catholic Conference, there are 7,455 teachers employed by Catholic schools in New Jersey. The court’s ruling would apply to all of them. But Crisitello’s lawyer, Thomas McKinney, of the employment law firm Castronovo & McKinney, worries the decision could have even broader implications.
“People are looking at this as very limited to a school teacher who’s unmarried and pregnant. I think the decision by the [New Jersey] Supreme Court goes beyond that,” McKinney tells Rolling Stone. “Let’s say there’s a gay employee working at a religious hospital, and that person’s a nurse, for example. And under the state law, they’re allowed to marry. If they get married, and they have health insurance, and they move to add their spouse to that health insurance, if that religious organization has a tenant that is against homosexuality, they can then legally be fired. That’s a real issue,” McKinney says.
Advocates with the activist group Catholics for Choice were similarly disturbed by the ruling. In an email to Rolling Stone, president Jamie L. Manson wrote, “This case is just the latest in a long list of examples where church leaders make wildly overreaching ‘religious freedom’ claims that allow them to violate labor laws and basic worker protections. It’s ironic, considering how strongly the church feels about pregnancy, that they would take away this woman’s livelihood and threaten her ability to care for her child. Where are the ‘pro-life’ values in that?”
McKinney says there is a possibility of trying to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New Jersey’s law violates the First Amendment, but he’s hesitant about pursuing it, considering the high court’s recent rulings on similar cases.
“Would we be successful? I’m not sure, with the makeup of our current US Supreme Court… that if I were to appeal, it would benefit people in other states in a similar situation,” McKinney says. “It could actually negatively impact a lot more people in other states.”