A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a lawsuit filed by a fourth-grade teacher allegedly fired from her job at a Christian elementary school in Florida for engaging in premarital sex.
A three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Jarretta Hamilton’s lawsuit against Southland Christian School in St. Cloud, Fla., should proceed to a trial. At issue in the suit is whether the school engaged in pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
School officials maintained that Ms. Hamilton was fired for violating the moral values of the Christian school. More specifically, school officials accused her of engaging in “fornication.”
The issue arose in April 2009 when Hamilton asked school administrators, John and Julie Ennis, for maternity leave. During the conversation, Hamilton acknowledged that the child was conceived in January 2009, three weeks before Hamilton and her then-fiancé were married.
Several days after the conversation, school administrators informed Hamilton that rather than receiving maternity leave, she was being fired because she had sinned by engaging in premarital sex. According to the appeals court, Mr. Ennis told her: “There are consequences for disobeying the word of God.”
Hamilton hired a lawyer and sued, arguing that the real issue behind her dismissal was the school’s displeasure over her request for maternity leave.
Under Title VII, there is no right to engage in premarital sex. But the civil rights law does protect a right to become pregnant without facing discrimination in the workplace.
Nonetheless, a federal judge in Orlando threw the case out, ruling that Hamilton had failed to show that her treatment was different than any other teachers at the school.
In reversing that decision, appeals court Judge Edward Carnes said there was enough circumstantial evidence to raise a reasonable inference of intentional discrimination by the school.
“Hamilton presented evidence that, in making the decision to fire her, Southland was more concerned about her pregnancy and her request to take maternity leave than about her admission that she had premarital sex,” Judge Carnes wrote. “She testified at deposition that, after she told the Ennises about her pregnancy but before she told them she had conceived before getting married, John Ennis ‘put his head back and he said, we feared something like this would happen.’ “
Hamilton was reportedly told that she would have to take the entire year off because it was difficult for school administrators to replace a teacher on maternity leave after the school year started.
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.”
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).