Law & Courts

Court Allows Firing of Catholic-School Counselor To Stand

By Mark Walsh — January 17, 2001 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a Montana woman who claimed she was fired from her job as a counselor at a Roman Catholic school because she was living with a man outside of marriage.

Vera Parker-Bigback had worked as a teacher and counselor from 1981 to 1993 at the St. Labre School in Ashland, Mont., a school serving Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indians in eastern Montana. Her job as an employee assistant and counselor was eliminated by the school’s administration in 1993.

In a state lawsuit alleging discrimination based on marital status, Ms. Parker-Bigback argued that she had lost her job because her supervisor, a Catholic priest, did not approve of her living with her boyfriend.

The school acknowledged in court papers that the priest, the Rev. Emmett Hoffman, believed that Ms. Parker- Bigback was not conforming to Catholic moral teaching. But it argued that her job was eliminated in favor of the new position of personnel director.

Even so, the school argued, it would have had the right to dismiss her over her failure to conform to Catholic teaching, because she had signed a contract agreeing to do so.

A St. Labre administrator testified in a deposition that school employees needed to serve as role models for children in the school by adhering to lifestyles that were consistent with church beliefs.

Ms. Parker- Bigback lost in a state trial court and in a 5-2 decision in the Montana Supreme Court.

The state high court majority ruled last year that her firing was based not on her marital status, which is a protected category under state law, but on her conduct in cohabiting with a man she wasn’t married to, which violated church teaching.

The dissenting justices said the school had agreed in its policy manual to abide by Montana’s prohibitions against employment discrimination, including that based on marital status.

“Given Father Hoffman’s expressed disapproval of [Ms. Parker-Bigback] living with a man without the benefit of marriage, her termination was about marital status,” the dissent said.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment on Jan. 8 to hear the counselor’s appeal in Parker-Bigback v. St. Labre School (Case No. 00-723).

Tobacco Advertising

In other action last week, the high court agreed to hear a challenge from the tobacco industry to Massachusetts regulations that prohibit advertising of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.

The state attorney general’s office adopted the regulations in 1999 as part of a broader effort to reduce youth tobacco use.

Several major cigarette manufacturers agreed to end most outdoor advertising as part of their 1998 settlement of litigation with 46 states, including Massachusetts.

But the Massachusetts rules go beyond the settlement by prohibiting both outdoor tobacco advertising near schools and playgrounds and indoor advertisements in the same proximity that are visible from outside, such as posters or displays at convenience stores.

A ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, that upheld the Massachusetts regulations conflicts with a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, which struck down similar rules in Tacoma, Wash., on the grounds that such regulations are pre-empted by a federal law dealing with cigarette labeling and advertising.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly (No. 00-596), five major cigarette manufacturers argued that the First Amendment bars a state from enacting a near-total ban on “truthful and nonmisleading” tobacco advertising.

“Commercial-speech restrictions cannot deny communication to a large number of adults for the sake of protecting children,” the companies argued in their appeal.

The case will be argued in April and decided by summer.

Also last week, the justices declined without comment to revive a lawsuit alleging that the Dallas school district had failed to respond adequately to charges that a teacher had sexually abused several male students during the 1980s.

The appeal by parents of the alleged victims was Doe v. Dallas Independent School District (No. 00- 645).

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Court Allows Firing of Catholic-School Counselor To Stand

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