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Catholic School’s Firing of Teacher Sparks Legal Debate

A teacher’s dismissal from an all-girls Catholic school in Wilmington has sparked a legal debate over whether a religious school may fire an instructor for professing beliefs outside the classroom that differ from church doctrine.

Officials from Ursuline Academy contend that Michele Curay-Cramer, 31, who was fired on Monday after her name appeared on an abortion-rights advertisement, violated the school’s employee handbook by going against the teachings of the Catholic Church. The ad appeared in The News Journal on the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.

Ursuline officials said that when Curay-Cramer signed a contract with the school, she agreed to abide by the employee handbook, which specifies disciplinary action against an employee for behavior that “reflects negatively on the school.”

But Curay-Cramer’s lawyer, Thomas S. Neuberger, said because the school isn’t controlled by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, it isn’t exempt from the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against an employee based on race, religion, gender, or national background. Neuberger said Curay-Cramer, a Catholic, was fired for her religious beliefs and for espousing views differing from the church outside the classroom.

“What employer can control what you do over 24 hours?” Neuberger said.

Curay-Cramer had a right to volunteer with Planned Parenthood – an organization that provides abortions, sex education and prenatal care – without letting it interfere with her teaching, he said. “They’re saying she’s not teaching Catholic doctrine,” he said. “She teaches it the way they tell her to.”

But Ursuline spokesman Jerry Botto dismissed the suggestion that the school intruded in Curay-Cramer’s private life. Her beliefs “became public when she put her name in the paper,” Botto said.

Neuberger said he is considering legal action against the school for discrimination, but he also wants to reach a settlement that would compensate Curay-Cramer for her firing.

Legal precedents

Curay-Cramer’s case is not unprecedented.

Neuberger said he intends to prove that the school’s contract does not contain a provision such as “the Cardinal’s clause,” used in a 1991 U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold a Catholic school’s dismissal of a teacher.

In that case, Susan Long Little, a divorced teacher who re-married, was fired by the St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Pittsburgh for not remarrying according to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

In her contract, the Cardinal’s clause stated that the school “has the right to dismiss a teacher for serious public immorality, public scandal, or public rejection of the official teachings, doctrine, or laws of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Neuberger said that without such a clause, Ursuline does not have the right to terminate a teacher’s contract for expressing differing beliefs outside the classroom. Botto, however, said Ursuline’s mission statement and philosophy place the school’s teachings under the purview of the diocese.

“It would be fully within the bishop’s right to say Ursuline Academy is no longer a Catholic school if it is not fulfilling the mission of the Catholic Church,” Botto said.

If Curay-Cramer sues the school, Ursuline could seek to use a rare defense called the bona fide occupational qualification exception. That would allow Ursuline to discriminate against an employee based on religion if it “relates to the central mission of the school,” said Mary Ellen Maatman, an associate law professor who teaches employment discrimination cases at Widener Law School.

But with the school’s status as an independent Catholic school, “it sounds like it would be difficult for the school to argue exemption of the Civil Rights Act,” Maatman said.

Maatman said the occupational qualification defense is written and interpreted narrowly, making it hard for an employer to use. For example, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, the Ninth Circuit U.S. District Court ruled in 1993 that a Protestant school in Hawaii could not use the occupational qualification defense to prohibit the hiring of non-Protestants, she said.

In Curay-Cramer’s case, a national abortion rights group criticized Ursuline’s dismissal of the teacher.

Catholics for Free Choice President Frances Kissling said the church has taken a hard-line stance on Catholics with pro-choice views while shying away from issues such as pedophilia among priests.

“She has every right as a Catholic to hold a view; this is not like they’re accusing the teacher of teaching abortion,” Kissling said. “What kind of example are you [setting by] telling children that if you express a view, you get fired?”


This article courtesy of the News Journal.

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