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New Jersey Supreme Court: Religious schools have right to ‘teachers who follow their faith’

“This decision is a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey, but it is especially important for Orthodox Jews,” stated Eric Rassbach of the nonprofit firm Becket.

The Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, seat of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, seat of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey decided on Monday in favor of a Roman Catholic elementary school, which fired an unmarried teacher who became pregnant, citing a violation of its employment agreement.

Victoria Crisitello, an art teacher and caregiver in a toddler room, had alleged that the Church of St. Theresa committed employment discrimination against her in 2013. When the school principal asked her to teach art full-time, Cristello informed the school that she was pregnant. 

The school told her a few weeks later that she could no longer work at St. Theresa since she had violated the Archdiocese of Newark’s ethical code, which stated in part that employees must “conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the discipline, norms and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

After weighing whether the teacher was fired for being pregnant or for violating the terms of employment, the court sided with the school.

“Teachers make the school,” stated Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit firm, who argued the case before the court.

“The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith,” he added. “To do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.”

Becket argued the case on behalf of Agudath Israel of America.

“In briefing and at the oral argument, Becket explained that church autonomy, which provides religious groups the power to decide matters of faith, doctrine and internal governance, protects Orthodox Jewish schools and other religious schools,” the firm stated in a release.

“Today the court, in a unanimous opinion, held that under New Jersey law, ‘The religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law,’” it added.

“This decision is a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey, but it is especially important for Orthodox Jews,” Rassbach added. “There are too many examples in history of governments interfering with Jewish schools, or worse. Today, the court did the right thing for Orthodox Jews and all other New Jerseyans by stopping this attempt to drag government into direct control of religious schools.”

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