As a constitutional lawyer deeply concerned over the rights of the Church I have watched the Federal trial in Cincinnati with great concern. The problem with the case is that very few news sources have fairly reported on what is really at stake.
The photos associated with the news reports show a mom with her child at a Christmas tree.
The effort is to paint the Catholic Archdiocese at best as a Grinch. When one reads most media reports, the picture presented is even worse.
The Catholic Church is presented as a hypocritical ogre who wants to put a mother and child out on the street.
Christa Dias is an openly practicing lesbian. She underwent artificial insemination in order to have a child outside of marriage. She signed a contract with the Archdiocese and clearly agreed to abide by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church as an employee of a Catholic School.
She did not do so. Openly practicing her lesbian lifestyle and undergoing artificial insemination are a clear breach of that contract. They are also unquestionably at odds with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.
Ms. Dias sued the Archdiocese when she was dismissed from her employment. She alleged it was not because of her open violation of her contract and opposition to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.
Rather, her clever lawyers filed the case in Federal Court. They argued she was fired because she was pregnant and that her dismissal this was a violation of Federal Law prohibiting discrimination against pregnant women.
Her lawyers also argued that the Archdiocese discriminated against her as a woman because married men who also participate in artificial insemination are not treated in the same way.
The archdiocese argued that she worked for a Catholic School, knew that her behavior violated the teaching of the Church and openly violated that teaching and the contract which incorporated it. In effect, they argued that she, like all who work in Catholic schools, was what the Law would call Law a ministerial employee.
Or at least they should have made that argument strongly, if they did not do so. I hope they do so on appeal.
The US Supreme Court in 2012 affirmed the longstanding body of law protecting Churches in their employment decisions in the now famous Hosanna Tabor decision. Religious groups and churches can dismiss employees who openly oppose and defy Church doctrine.
On Monday, June 3, 2013, the jury returned their verdict in favor of Christa Dias and against the Church. They ordered the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to pay her 170,000. That amount included $51,000 for back pay, $20,000 for compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.
Punitive damages, as the name implies, are intended to punish the party found liable.
In other words, the Catholic Church was just fined by a civil jury for insisting that an employee at a Catholic School abide by the moral teaching of the Church. In the wake of the growing hostility toward the Church and the increasing violations against the Free Exercise of Religion in the United States, this verdict is a metaphorical warning shot across the bow.
I am not sure what the Archdiocese is going to do. I sincerely hope they appeal this case. It has dangerous implications. It raises the question, can a Catholic, or for that matter any Christian institution, insist that its employees abide by the teaching of the Church?
On January 11, 2012 the United States Supreme Court, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued one of the most important Religion Clause cases of the last fifty years. It was a unanimous opinion. The majority opinion was written by Justice Roberts. Two concurring opinions were filed; one by Justice Thomas and a second by Justice Alito who was joined by Justice Kagan.
Cheryl Perich was a commissioned or called lay teacher at a Lutheran School in Michigan. In 2004 she was asked to resign after a six month leave of absence upon certain terms and with assistance. The terms were set forth in the internal employment manuals of the school.
The teacher objected and the school sought a resolution under their internal dispute resolution procedure. Ms Perich pursued another avenue – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
She sought to file a claim in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a Federal Statute.Those facts set up one of the most significant Church/State cases in American Law. This is often how such matters unfold in the world of American Jurisprudence.
Ms Perich attempted to argue that she was in essence a lay employee since she was not ordained clergy. She further argued that she essentially taught secular subjects and thus did not fall under what has been called the ministerial exemption to certain Federal legislation.
The School claimed that she was called according to their internal doctrinal schema of their Church. Further, that all teaching at the school was a part of the mission of the Church. Finally, they maintained that the Church’s internal dispute resolution system was to be followed because this was a Church institution.
The fact that the decision of the US Supreme Court was unanimous added to its weight; coupled with the issuance of three substantial opinions. The Court sets forth in its legal analysis a wide array of assistance for future lawyers engaged in defending Churches and religious institutions.
That has become absolutely essential these days as hostility toward the Church grows under our secularist regime. Such legal advocates are now regularly called upon to protect the Church from ever increasing Governmental encroachment and interference.
For example, this important opinion came just as the effort to compel Church and faith based institutions to implement the Affordable Care Act ramps up. Part of its implementation involves efforts to compel distribution of contraceptives and the provision of abortion services or face the wrath of the federal government.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution was intended to protect against the establishment of a National Church and a forced adherence to its doctrine – more aptly understood as an Anti-Establishment Clause.
Sadly, it has devolved into an interpretation of a Church/State separation which is hostile to religious institutions, discriminates against people of faith and seeks to censor religious speech and expression in the public square.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment was intended to protect religious institutions and people of faith in their vital role in speaking and acting in an authentically pluralistic society. It presumed that the values informed by faith were to be esteemed and welcomed because they serve the common good.
Sadly, it has been turned on its head – and is now used all too often to silence the Church.
Finally, the Free Speech clause has been subverted entirely. When the message and the messenger being examined under its light is determined by the State to be speaking a “religious” or now even a “moral” message, its protections no longer apply.
This is one of the dangers of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI labeled a Dictatorship of Relativism. In a culture where there is no objective truth, those who claim otherwise become perceived as a threat.
The Hosanna Tabor case was a resounding reaffirmation of the rights of Churches and religious institutions to operate freely and follow their own internal doctrine – as well as to determine their own way of resolving their own disputes.
I had sincerely hoped it would protect the Church and Religious Institutions for awhile.
The Christa Dias case has ominous implications.