A pregnant Montana teacher who alleges that she was fired from a Catholic middle school because she was not married has hired a law firm in the latest conflict between religious doctrine and shifting societal values.
Shaela Evenson, 36, was fired from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena for violating the morality clause of her contract, the diocese said.
"As with any Catholic school, we have the obligation to provide an authentically Catholic learning environment," Supt. Patrick Haggarty told the Los Angeles Times. "This includes the responsibility for employees to be outstanding role models and excellent teachers of the moral and religious teachings of our church."
Evenson referred questions to her lawyers, who didn't respond to inquiries from The Times. One of them, Brian Butler, told the Montana Standard that Evenson would file suit under the Civil Rights Act of 1964's prohibition against sex discrimination, including for pregnancy.
Because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the school could argue that premarital sex by a religious instructor is immoral and thus a contract violation. The high court held that federal anti-discrimination law doesn't apply to faith-based schools' decisions related to employees who are in religious roles.
"Unfortunately, when a teacher chooses to violate the terms of that contract, he or she self-selects to not continue his or her employment in the school," Haggarty said. He added that lawyers would be better suited to say whether Evenson could be classified as a ministerial employee.
A fired Catholic school teacher from Cincinnati successfully argued in a civil suit last year that the exemption didn't apply because her role as a technology teacher didn't encompass essential religious functions.
Christa Dias was fired after becoming pregnant through artificial insemination while unwed. A jury in June awarded her more than $170,000, including back pay and punitive damages.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati dropped its appeal in August after an undisclosed agreement between the parties was reached, according to court records. Steven Goodin, the attorney for the archdiocese, declined to comment.
Dias' attorneys, Butler and Bob Klinger, are representing Evenson.
As societal views on sexuality shift, firings at Catholic schools have become controversial.
"We face a difficult challenge in this age because many of the moral and religious teachings of the Catholic church are not compatible with the contemporary values and mores of society," Haggarty said.
The recent firing of a gay vice principal at a Catholic school in Sammamish, Wash., led students to protest on campus and online. Mark Zmuda has said Eastside High School officials forced him out because they learned he had married a man. School officials confirmed the decision in a letter last December and announced it would not reconsider.
"I am not asking for everyone to agree with marriage equality," Zmuda said during a rally last week, according to the Seattle Times. "I am asking for one thing: that everyone will be tolerant."
A similar firing occurred last month in Toledo, Ohio, after a music teacher told administrators he had become engaged during winter break. The teacher, Brian Panetta, has told local media that he does not plan to sue.
In Indiana, a court battle continues for a Catholic teacher who says she was fired in June 2011 because she chose to fight infertility with in vitro fertilization. Besides discrimination for her pregnancy, language arts teacher Emily Herx has alleged disability discrimination because infertility is legally considered a disability.
Her lawsuit states that she was fired for "improprieties related to church teachings or law." She alleges that the diocese's health plan paid for her fertility treatment and that her boss was OK with her efforts to conceive until another teacher complained.
In court filings, the Archdiocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and the school have said Herx's claim lacks merit because of the "religious nature of her job duties."
Critics, including some Catholics, have complained about firing gays and single mothers-to-be because, among other reasons, they say the decisions don't fit with what they see as Pope Francis' call for greater tolerance for people who don't follow the church's beliefs on sexual issues.
But Haggarty said the pope's position didn't apply to this contractual situation, in which a teacher was acting as a role model.
Rick Garnett, director of the church, state and society program at Notre Dame Law School, backed Haggarty's assertion.
"The Christa Dias case came out wrong, because all teachers -- whether they are teaching about religion or about computers -- can be expected by a Catholic school to model the values and support the mission of the school," Garrnett told The Times. "To me, it's no different than expecting the spokesperson for the Green Party to support the Green Party's values."