Last year, the Catholic Church made headlines across the country as it refused contraception mandates in insurance coverage for employees, arguing that paying for birth control violated religious doctrine and this would constitute a breach of the First Amendment. The battle proved fierce with advocates from a number of sides weighing in on the subject, and noting that in many cases, employees of the Catholic Church are not themselves Catholic; can the Church impose its beliefs on them as part of their job?
It turns out that the Church kind of can as a private employer; the argument goes that people actively choose employment in Catholic schools, hospitals and other facilities, and have the option of not signing employment contracts that might include restrictive clauses. Not signing, of course, means that you won’t be able to take the job.
Last week, two notable cases of discrimination against Catholic employees came up in the news, one in New York and another in Ohio. Both highlighted the potential dangerous of working in Church-run facilities, and drew attention to the fact that the Church is one of the few organizations that has legal protections when it comes to imposing moral guidelines on employees. While other employers may present ethical standards (financial firms, for example, can include clauses in contracts covering legal obligations as well as company ethics on certain issues), they can’t tell their employees how to lead their lives, and the Church does.
In Ohio, Kathleen Quinlan was fired from her position as a first grade teacher at Ascension Catholic School after she became pregnant. Sounds like a clear cause of pregnancy discrimination and cause for legal action, but the Church says the fact that she was unmarried made her an unfit role model for her students, and thus the firing was justified. She’s suing the diocese, arguing that her firing violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, while the Church is defending itself under a “ministerial exception.” That’s right; the Church can skate around anti-discrimination laws if it can find a religious reason, and it’s done just that before, with the blessing of no less than the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in New York, Mark Krolikowski was fired after 32 years of teaching after she was forced to come out as transgender to school officials. They called her “worse than gay” and informed her that she shouldn’t transition at work or appear as a woman, and then they released her from her duties. She’s suing for discrimination, because she’s fortunate enough to work in a region where gender is a protected employment class, something which is not the case across the U.S. The Church will undoubtedly pursue a ministerial exception in her case just as it has in similar discrimination suits.
Employees of the Catholic Church, whether or not they are Catholic, are stranded with few rights when it comes to employment disputes, because the Church has tremendous legal clout. It can afford to hire the attorneys needed to demonstrate and prove a ministerial exception, and it’s not afraid to throw its weight around in court to set precedents that will make future suits harder for employees to pursue.
Labor organizing and advocacy must include rights for employees in these situations, because a balance needs to be struck: while infringements on religious freedom shouldn’t be tolerated, neither should firings of competent, skilled, enthusiastic employees who don’t follow the teachings of a given faith, or who interpret it differently than Church leaders. That, too, is an infringement of religious freedom, after all.
Photo credit MonkeyMyshkin