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  • Writer's pictureAlexander J. Kemeny

NJ Supreme Court Applies the “Religious Tenets” Exception to Wrongful Termination LAD Claim

In Victoria Crisitello v. St. Theresa School (A-63-20) (085213), the New Jersey Supreme Court  applied the “religious tenets” exception of New Jersey's Law Against Discimination, which allows religious entities to follow the tenets of its faith “in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment.” In doing so, it found that a Roman Catholic school was permitted to terminate one its elementary school teacher because she became pregnant out of wedlock in contravention of her employment agreement that required employees to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

 

New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Wrongful Termination and Religious Tenets Defense

In its decision, the Court considered whether summary judgment dismissing a lawsuit filed Victoria Crisitello against the defendant, the Church of St. Theresa (St. Theresa's), was appropriate. In her complaint, Crisitello alleged employment discrimination in violation of New Jersey’s  Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. § 10:5-1 to -49. She had been dismissed from her role as an art teacher and toddler room caregiver because she became pregnant while unmarried. This was in breach of her employment agreement, which mandated employees to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

 

The St. Theresa School, a Roman Catholic elementary school, used the official "Archdiocese of Newark Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct," which included a Code of Ethics. This code required employees to behave in a way that was consistent with the Catholic Church's discipline, norms, and teachings. In 2011, St. Theresa's employed Crisitello, a former student, who signed an acknowledgment of her receipt and understanding of employment documents, including the Code of Ethics.

 

In 2014, Sister Lee, the school principal, discussed the possibility of Crisitello teaching art full time. During their meeting, Crisitello revealed that she was pregnant. A few weeks later, Sister Lee informed Crisitello that she had violated the Code of Ethics by engaging in premarital sex and, as a result, could not remain on St. Theresa's staff.

 

Crisitello filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on pregnancy and marital status. The trial court ruled in favor of St. Theresa's, stating that the LAD clearly protects a religious institution in requiring that an employee abide by the principles of the Catholic faith, and there was no suggestion that Crisitello was terminated for her pregnancy or marital status, per se. It held that Crisitello was instead terminated for violating the tenets of the Catholic Church, thereby violating the Code of Ethics. It also found that the First Amendment barred her claims.

 

The Appellate Division reversed trial court’s decision, stating that the First Amendment did not bar Crisitello’s claims and that Crisitello had demonstrated a prima facie case. The case was then remanded to the trial court.

 

On remand, the trial court compelled discovery consistent with the Appellate Division’s decision, and then again granted summary judgment in favor of St. Theresa’s. The court explained that the record lacked any evidence that suggested that Crisitello’s pregnancy out of wedlock was not the real reason for her termination. The trial court also found significant evidence in the record that St. Theresa’s supports its married teachers who become pregnant and that another Catholic school, also within the Archdiocese of Newark, fired an unmarried male teacher after he revealed that his girlfriend was pregnant with their child.

 

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court decision once more, stating that knowledge or mere observation of an employee’s pregnancy alone was not a permissible basis to detect violations of the school’s policy and terminate an employee. The appellate court ruled that despite Crisitello’s concession -- that she knew premarital sex violated the tenets of the Catholic Church -- neither the Code of Ethics nor the employee handbook expressly mentioned premarital sex or that it would result in termination.

 

St. Theresa’s filed a notice of appeal as of right under Rule 2:2-1(a)(1) as well as a petition for certification, which was granted by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court  held that the “religious tenets” exception of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a), which states that “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice” for a religious entity to follow the tenets of its faith “in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment” -- was an affirmative defense available to a religious entity when confronted with a claim of employment discrimination. Since, it was undisputed that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church in terminating Crisitello. St. Theresa’s was therefore entitled to summary judgment and the dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.

 

The Supreme Court explained that since Crisitello had not produced any evidence to suggest that the reason given for her dismissal was false, there was no dispute of material fact, and St. Theresa's was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The religious tenets exception of the LAD prevented her from maintain a claim under LAD.

 

A copy of the decision in Victoria Crisitello v. St. Theresa School (A-63-20) (085213) (Decided August 14, 2023 -- Revised August 14, 2023) may be found here: https://www.njcourts.gov/system/files/court-opinions/2023/a_63_20.pdf








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