Churches and church schools often adopt employment morals clauses. Morals clauses rarely specify the immoral conduct prohibited because the owner or sponsor of the school is a church that has a generally known doctrinal or biblical stance regarding morality. Termination based on alleged violation of a morals clause, especially in mainstream churches and their satellites like church schools, may not always shield the school or the church from liability claims based on employment discrimination statutes.
In Crisitello v St. Theresa School, Slip Op. (NJ App. 2020) (unpublished), the appellate court reversed the summary judgment of the trial court for the second time. The trial court found that being a terminated unwed pregnant female was not actionable. The church school had a morals clause that required the teachers and staff to adhere to the doctrines and morals of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the employment handbook containing the morals clause did not in the clause expressly specify pre-marital sex as prohibited. The plaintiff alleged the school’s termination decision was based only on the knowledge of the pregnancy and the teacher’s unwed status and was discriminatory because there was no inquiry into the premarital sexual actions of other employees, especially males. The teacher was an art teacher and did not teach religious education, distinguishing the claim from those in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U. S. ___, (2020) and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter & Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, 591 U.S. ___, (2020). The Establishment Clause, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, and the Ministerial Exception, were deemed inapplicable.
Of course, to suggest that the morals clause had to have greater specificity, such as a recital of the Ten Commandments or scripture citations, is itself an ecclesiastical determination. The appellate court seems to have reasoned it is possible a college-educated person might go to work in a Roman Catholic church school and not know the Roman Catholic church has not yet endorsed as acceptable pre-marital sex. While it may be that the teacher in the case reported did not have religious teaching duties, which might prevent application of the Ministerial Exception, it remains to be seen whether determining the scope of a morals clause might not entangle a court in ecclesiastical discussions.