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Florida teacher, fired for premarital sex, has right to a trial, court rules

A teacher at a Christian school, fired in 2009 ostensibly for engaging in premarital sex, can proceed with her lawsuit against the school, a US appeals court ruled Wednesday. She says the real reason she lost her job was pregnancy.

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According to Hamilton’s deposition, she asked John Ennis: “What is the issue here? Is it because of the coverage? Or is it because of the premarital conception?” Hamilton said that Ennis replied that it was “both reasons.”

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Mr. Ennis said during his own deposition that Hamilton was fired not just because of her premarital sex, but also because she never expressed sorrow for her actions.

“If … she would have said to us I’m sorry that I’ve sinned against the Lord and this school, we would not be here,” Ennis said. “We could have gone in another total direction. But I never heard her say she was sorry.”

Hamilton’s deposition tells a different story, according to Carnes. She gave this account of what happened after she spoke to the Ennises: “I became afraid that I had done something horrible. And I went to God in prayer, and my husband and I both together, and asked for forgiveness. And I expressed that to Mr. Ennis. Hopefully, you know, letting him know that I, you know, was remorseful for what had – you know, if I’ve done something so horrible against God. And that God had forgiven me, and I just wanted him to, if, you know, it was such a horrible thing. But it didn’t make a difference.”

Carnes wrote: “So, her testimony contradicted John Ennis’ testimony that he had never heard her say she was sorry and that he would not have fired her if she had. For that, and the other reasons we have discussed, Hamilton has established a genuine issue of material fact about the reason Southland fired her.”

The judge added: “The ultimate issue is one for a jury to decide.”

The appeals court also addressed the issue of whether Hamilton’s lawsuit might be barred on religious grounds as a teacher in a religious school. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court embraced a broad reading of the so-called ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws.

In that case, the high court said parochial school teachers who also serve as ministers may not sue their employers for discrimination in matters intertwined with religious doctrine. Southland’s appeals court brief was due in November 2011, and the Supreme Court decision wasn’t handed down until two months later in January 2012.

After the decision, a lawyer for the school notified the appeals court, arguing that the decision “supports Southland’s claims that its decision to terminate Hamilton is free from court oversight by virtue of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses.”

In their decision on Wednesday, the appeals court judges said the school’s lawyer had failed to properly advance that argument during the appeal. They said the supplemental filing and efforts to present the issue at oral argument had come too late, since the lawyer had failed to first present the issue in his written brief.

“Because Southland did not raise any issue or make any argument in its brief about the ministerial exception, we will not decide whether that exception might apply,” Carnes wrote.

The case is Hamilton v. Southland Christian School (11-13696).

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