An Ohio jury ruled Monday that the Cincinnati archdiocese discriminated against a teacher fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination. The expected appeal may affect how much religious organizations can regulate employees’ behavior.
Christa Dias, a computer technology teacher fired from two schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati in October 2010, won more than $170,000 in her federal anti-discrimination lawsuit.
Dias’ attorney, Robert Klingler, argued she was fired simply because she was pregnant and unmarried, a dismissal he said violated state and federal law.
Steven Goodin, the attorney for the archdiocese and the schools, argued Dias was fired for violating her contract. Employees are required to comply with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which considers artificial insemination immoral.
Dias, who is not Catholic, testified she didn’t know artificial insemination violated church doctrine or her contract. She said she thought the clause meant she should be a Christian and follow the Bible.
Goodin argued that Dias, who is gay, never intended to abide by her contract. She kept her sexual orientation a secret because she knew that homosexual acts also would violate that contract, he said. Neither party claims she was fired because she is gay.
The potential appeal carries wide implications for religious organizations because of the definitions at stake. The archdiocese argued before trial that Dias was a “ministerial employee,” a position that has not been clearly defined by the courts. In Hosana-Tabor v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court said religious groups can fire those workers without government interference. But the Cincinnati court found Dias was not a ministerial employee and that the issue couldn’t be argued at trial.
Jessie Hill, a professor of civil rights and constitutional law at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University School of Law, believes the “ministerial exception’ could be raised on appeal.
David Ball, co-chairman of the Religious Organizations Subcommittee of the American Bar Association, said an appellate court may have to decide whether the case involves “impermissible pregnancy discrimination or permissible religious discrimination, when in fact it’s both.”
This was the second such lawsuit filed in the last two years against the archdiocese. The jury decided the archdiocese should pay Dias $71,000 in back pay and compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The jury didn’t find the schools liable for damages.
Klingler said the case shows jurors are willing to apply the law “even to churches and religious organizations when non-ministerial employees are discriminated against.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.