N.J. Supreme Court Declares That Religious Schools Are Not Covered by Discrimination Law

The NJ Supreme Court released an important decision recently affirming that employment discrimination laws do not apply to a religious school’s requirement that all teachers and staff embrace and live up to the tenets of the faith, Criscitello vs. St. Theresa’s School.

In the case decided in 2020, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Peru, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws applies teachers at a religious school, even those who do not teach religion. That left the question of whether the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination could be applied to teachers at a religious school who do not teach religion. In the Criscitello case, the Catholic school terminated the employment of an unmarried art teacher when she told the principal that she was pregnant. The reason stated for the termination was because premarital sex violates tenets of the Catholic faith. The employee sued, claiming that the school discriminated against her on the bases of her marital status and her sex. The Court dismissed her lawsuit, relying on the plain language in the statute that excludes religious schools from that law:

….provided further that it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for . . . for a religious association or organization to utilize religious affiliation as a uniform qualification in the employment of clergy, religious teachers or other employees engaged in the religious activities of the association or organization, or in following the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee.

We had been closely following this case because the employee had convinced two appellate courts that the discrimination laws could be applied to Ms. Criscitello. Those appeals court judges would have a jury to decide whether the teacher was discriminated against, not because she violated religious law but because she was unmarried or a woman; a second appeals court would have required the religious school to present the results of a survey of staff that showed that men as well as women were disciplined when they violated religious tenets, showing that a single man who impregnated a woman would have been treated the same as Ms. Criscitello.

Thus, the Court declared an important principle, that the statute’s religious tenets exception is a “wall of separation between church and state and exists to relieve religious employers from the burdens of employment litigation.” Ms. Criscitello had argued that the school’s supposed reason for her termination was a mere pretext for sex discrimination. She argued that the statute is not a “wall” but merely an initial hurdle that must be overcome in answering whether she was qualified for the job, or whether violation of a religious tenet was the real reason for her termination. The Court rejected those arguments.

In sum, all religious schools may refuse to hire teachers and staff who do not declare and live by the tenets of their religion, and not be challenged because the applicant or employee believes that the real reason was age, sex, race, or the other categories protected by law.

Ellen O’Connell is Of Counsel with the firm, to contact her click here.