Unforgiven Offenses

The Catholic Church’s interference with its employees’ private lives is becoming an increasingly public matter


n the 1940s, upholding a dainty, proper nuclear family wasn’t just common — it was the absolute standard for social acceptance. Seventy years later, that’s no longer the case. 

And still, churches still seem to desperately be clinging to old-fashioned ways of thinking to reinforce outdated social norms. Recent actions against female employees have threatened the livelihood of good, qualified workers to maintain such conventions, bringing up a long-unanswered question: How far do the rights of religious employers go when it comes to dictating the private lives of their employees? 

A pending case in the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio has the potential to begin answering that gigantic question — one that seems to be popping up more often as social paradigms continue to shift in an ever-evolving world. 

Kathleen Quinlan, an unmarried first-grade teacher at Ascension Catholic School in Kettering, Ohio, is suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati for firing her after informing them she was pregnant. 

According to the claim filed in the U.S. District Court, Quinlan began teaching at Ascension in August 2011, when she signed an employment contract containing a “morality clause” that’s become the crux of her lawsuit against the Archdiocese. 

Although Quinlan was a rank-and-file employee who neither led students in prayer nor engaged in any ministerial activities, to gain employment with Ascension she was required to sign an employment contract that included a stipulation requiring her to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies and directives of the School and the Archdiocese.” 

And, in the Roman Catholic Church, that means no sex unless you’re married (heterosexually, of course), along with a long list of other “moral” provisions. 

Quinlan approached Ascension principal Brett Devitt on Dec. 29, 2011, to let him know she was expecting twins. She offered to take a behind-the-scenes job until she gave birth so her pregnancy wouldn’t become a matter of public concern to students and parents. 

Instead, she was fired the same December day for violating that morality clause. She was given three days to clear out her classroom and notified that, months away from giving birth to twins, she’d be relinquished of her employer-provided healthcare on Jan. 30. 

Quinlan’s lawsuit against the Archdiocese, filed Dec. 14, 2012, comes just short of the one-year anniversary of her firing. Her twins have since been born, but she’s suing for breach of contract, disparate impact sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination. 

Whether or not the powers that be inside the Catholic Church accept it, having sex outside of marriage is a cultural norm that’s not going away — even among practicing Catholics. According to the 2008 results of the General Social Survey, a national survey administered every few years to gauge U.S. social trends, only 14 percent of Catholic survey respondents answered “always wrong” when asked, “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” In 1972, the first year the survey was administered, 39 percent of Catholic respondents answered, “always wrong.” 

There’s no question that single Catholics and non-Catholics are engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage, or that more practicing Catholics are finding it more morally acceptable to do so. What is up for debate in Quinlan’s case is the legality of the morality clause’s inclusion in Catholic employers’ contracts. According to Quinlan and her lawyers, it’s an inherent form of sex discrimination because women are the only Archdiocese employees who face fear of discovery and termination when they engage in sex while unmarried. Unless he chooses to incriminate himself, that same rule can’t be enforced for male employees. 

Quinlan’s lawyers, Micah Siegal and Mary Lentz of Gottschlich & Portune, LLP, are arguing that including and enforcing the morality clause violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents employers from firing employees for becoming pregnant. 

Dan Andriacco, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told CityBeat the morality clause is a perfectly legal and judicially enforceable portion of the employment contract, one that’s been in place for decades and lawfully gives the Church leeway to fire contract violators, like Quinlan, when they fall under the “ministerial exception” of civil labor laws. 

This de facto of “ministerial exception” is one that looms, only defined on a case-by-case basis. Siegal, Quinlan’s attorney, describes the exception as a “creature of common law,” one that, when brought into court, prompts fact-intensive investigations that have ruled both ways. 

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized ministerial exception for the first time in its ruling against Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan, who sued for allegedly being fired for taking disability leave; the court ruled that filing the lawsuit alone marked an unlawful interference with the church’s “authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful.” 

In Perich’s case, judges decided that because she held some religious duties as a teacher, she fell under this mysterious “ministerial exception” that prevented the courts from taking a stance. 

Quinlan’s case isn’t the first of its kind. In 2010, Clermont County schoolteacher Christa Dias, a single, non-ministerial employee at both Holy Family and St. Lawrence Schools, parochial schools owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, became impregnated via artificial insemination. She notified her employers and was terminated, the grounds for which fell under her violation of the same moral clause used in Quinlan’s case; her firing made national news and prompted her to file a similar lawsuit against the Cincinnati Archdiocese that’s still pending. 

The local cases pending demonstrate an uncanny infringement on women’s rights, but it’s yet to be seen what other limits the church could intend to impose on its employees and their livelihood. And, in an increasingly volatile economic climate, employment with religious organizations with these strict moral stipulations might be a necessary last resort. ©