NJ Supreme Court rules religious schools can require teachers to follow faith-based principles

 August 15, 2023

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday that religious schools have the right to require staff to follow faith-based principles while they are employed by the school, settling a case that has been ongoing since 2014. 

The case involved a Catholic school teacher, Victoria Crisitello, who became pregnant out of wedlock, causing St. Theresa school to not renew her contract in 2014.

Crisitello sued the school for discrimination but the lower court found in 2016 that she had violated the school's ethics rules as stated in its code of conduct.

An appeals court overturned the ruling in 2020 after Crisitello argued the policy was discriminatory because it only punished women, not men.

A new ruling

But the school argued that she wasn't fired for getting pregnant, but because the pregnancy meant that she broke their rule about engaging in premarital sex.

Technically, a man could be punished under that rule if there was evidence he engaged in premarital sex, such as a paternity test or any other evidence.

It's a sticky situation because Catholic doctrine also values life, and Crisitello went through with the pregnancy even though it cost her a job.

She probably could have aborted the baby, kept it secret, and kept her job even though that behavior would have been a much more egregious violation of the school's conduct rules and of her religious tenets.

A poor example

It's a shame that the school didn't follow other religious doctrines about repentance and forgiveness, which are also important to the Catholic faith and might even teach better lessons to students than Crisitello's firing.

On the other hand, letting her continue to teach would come across to some as condoning her behavior and could have consequences on student behavior over time, if the school wasn't clear about its reasons for keeping her on.

In the end, the school decided Crisitello was a poor example for its students and could not be allowed to remain a teacher there.

“Teachers make the school,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a prepared statement. “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.” 

What about grace?

Rassbach's statement is true, but if it were as easy as following a bunch of rules, there would not be a need for the saving grace of Jesus, which is also part of faith.

Young kids sometimes have a hard time understanding these nuances, though, and St. Theresa is certainly within its rights to make the decision to enforce its code of conduct in the manner it sees fit.

Democrats are bound to hate the ruling because they want to see faith removed from the public square, but even a liberal court like New Jersey's can see the importance of religious freedom.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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