Court Revives Teacher’s Pregnancy-Bias Suit

By Mark Walsh — May 16, 2012 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has revived the pregnancy-discrimination lawsuit of a Florida teacher who was fired from a Florida Christian school purportedly because she had disobeyed “the word of God” by engaging in premarital sex.

The school might have been able to raise the “ministerial exception” to job-bias laws recently recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the appeals court said the school failed to properly raise the defense.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled unanimously that teacher Jarretta Hamilton’s case should go before a jury. Hamilton conceived a child in January 2009 with her fiance, one month before they married, court papers say.

The teacher went to her superiors at Southland Christian School in Kissimmee, Fla., in April of that year to reveal her pregnancy and seek maternity leave. During the meeting, Hamilton acknowledged that she had conceived the child before getting married. The school fired her a few days later, with the school’s administrator, John Ennis, telling her, “there are consequences for disobeying the word of God,” her lawsuit alleged.

Hamilton sued based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal anti-discrimination law that was amended in 1978 to cover job bias based on pregnancy. A federal district court dismissed the pregnancy-discrimination claim, ruling that the Hamilton had not established a “prima facie” case of bias because she had not shown that comparatively situated non-pregnant workers were treated differently.

In its May 16 decision in Hamilton v. Southland Christian School, the 11th Circuit court panel reversed the district court and held that the teacher did allege a facial case of discrimination.

The court noted that Title VII does not protect job actions based on premarital sex, but does protect against pregnancy discrimination.

“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,” the 11th Circuit court said.

For example, the teacher testified at deposition that, after she told the administrators 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,’” the opinion recounts.

The school did raise the “ministerial exception” as a defense at the district court level, but the district judge said it didn’t apply in Hamilton’s case. (There was some evidence that the Christian school did not consider the teacher a minister.)

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there is a broad “ministerial exception” that churches may invoke in defense of job-discrimination claims by the ministers of their faith. The high court that a Lutheran teacher who had been trained in the faith’s ministry and had some religious duties at her school could not sue over alleged disability discrimination.

In the Florida case, which was evidently argued before the 11th Circuit court before Hosanna-Tabor was decided on Jan. 11, the appeals court said Southland Christian School could have raised the ministerial exception as one defense to Hamilton’s suit. But the school mentioned the issue only in passing in its briefs.

“Southland abandoned that exception as a defense by failing to list or otherwise state it as an issue on appeal,” the court said. “A passing reference to an issue in a brief is not enough, and the failure to make arguments and cite authorities in support of an issue waives it.”

The court said that because the school did not properly assert the ministerial exception defense, it was not deciding whether it might apply in this case.

The court said Hamilton has established a “genuine issue of material fact” about the actual reason why she was fired, and that is a question for a jury to decide.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.