Michigan and federal laws protect workers from being discriminated against at work if they become pregnant. However, when these workers are employees of a religious group, issues of employment law run headlong into constitutional issues of the separation of church and state.
Recently, a jury found in favor of a teacher who sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati for wrongful termination after it fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination. Soon afterward, she was fired. Officials told her that she was fired because the church opposes artificial insemination, teaching that it is immoral. According to the teacher, however, the archdiocese knew of at least one male employee who was practicing artificial insemination with his wife, but took no action against him. Therefore, she argued, her former employer was discriminating against her on the basis of sex.
Courts have found that the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution generally prohibits courts from interfering with religious groups' employment of "ministerial" workers, but courts have never clearly defined what makes an employee "ministerial." The archdiocese argued that the woman was a ministerial employee, but the jury agreed with the woman that her employment was not covered by any ministerial exception. The jury awarded her $170,000. The archdiocese is expected to appeal the decision.
Another issue of discrimination lies in the background of the teacher's lawsuit. The teacher is gay, and the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is immoral. However, if the woman claimed that she was fired for being gay her case might be weak because her state offers few protections against employment discrimination based upon sexual orientation.
When employment law runs into questions of religious freedom, the legal issues can get very tricky. However, Michigan women shouldn't have to lose their jobs when they get pregnant. Michigan workers who feel that they have been fired for unlawful reasons should get help researching their legal options.
Source: New York Daily News, "Pregnant teacher fired for artificial insemination to take witness stand in lawsuit against Cincinnati's Catholic Church," May 29, 2013