Court To Rule on Religious-School Teacher's Firing
Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether Ohio's civil-rights law can be enforced against a Christian school that fired a pregnant teacher in a dispute stemming from a church teaching that mothers should stay at home with their young children.
The case, Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools Inc. (Case No. 85-488), is the fifth the Court has accepted in the past two years involving the politically sensitive relationship between church and state in educational matters.
The Justices have already agreed to rule this term on whether students have a right to hold voluntary prayer meetings in public high schools and on whether students studying for the ministry have a right to state vocational-rehabilitation aid. Earlier this year, the Court struck down an Alabama law permitting a moment of silence for prayer in public schools and invalidated the way that most major cities provide compensatory-education services to students in church schools.
The Ohio dispute began in January 1979 when Linda Hoskinson, who had been teaching at the Dayton Christian School for four years, told her principal that she was pregnant. One month later, she was told that her contract would not be renewed because of what administrators said was a church teaching that mothers should stay at home with their preschool-age children.
Ms. Hoskinson, who maintains that the pregnancy policy was never communicated to school employees, consulted a lawyer about the school's decision. After hearing from the lawyer, school officials fired Ms. Hoskinson, contending that she had violated provisions in her contract, in which she had agreed "not to take a brother Christian to law" and to obey her principal and other administrators, who claimed authority under "a Biblical chain of command."
Ms. Hoskinson then filed a complaint with the state civil-rights commission, charging that her dismissal violated the Ohio Civil Rights Act. School officials, meanwhile, filed suit in federal district court, arguing that the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion exempted them from the civil-rights law's provisions.
The federal judge hearing the case issued an order blocking the state commission from acting on the complaint until he had an opportunity to rule on the matter.
The district court rejected the school officials' argument, saying that the commission's investigation would not represent a serious infringement of the administrators' religious rights. A federal appeals court reversed that decision last June.
"Never before has this Court been called upon to consider whether unlawful discriminatory conduct by a religiously affiliated employer is constitutionally immune from government regulation because such conduct was grounded on religious beliefs," argues the state of Ohio in papers filed with the Court.
"Mrs. Hoskinson was not terminated because she was a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew," says the state. "[She] was terminated because because she was pregnant and she sought to learn whether her termination was lawful. These are patently discriminatory and unlawful re-taliatory acts ... [that] should not be covered with a cloak of First Amendment immunity."
The Justices considered a somewhat similar argument in 1983 when it ruled, in Bob Jones University v. United States, that the federal government can deny tax-exempt status to religiously oriented colleges that discriminate against blacks.
In that case, the Justices held that the First Amendment's free-exercise and establishment clauses are not absolute prohibitions against government regulation of church affairs, especially when the religious practices at issue violate accepted public policy and a compelling government interest is at stake.
Also last week, the Court turned down a request by two former Camden County, Ga., teachers for a reversal of lower-court opinions upholding the constitutionality of their dismissals.
In papers filed in the case--Simmons v. Camden County Board of Education (No. 85-510)--the teachers argued that they were suspended and then fired in 1977 in retaliation for filing race-discrimination charges against school officials with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights. Such action, they contended, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Camden County school officials, meanwhile, argued that the firings were based on "an ongoing pattern of conduct manifesting disrespect and open defiance of the school's principal."
A federal district court ruled that although the teachers had established a prima facie case of retaliation, they had not proved their case by a preponderance of the evidence. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court's decision last April.