Is it ever okay for an employer to discharge an unmarried, pregnant employee for being unmarried and pregnant? As dramatic as that might sound, that’s exactly what happened in Eugene, Oregon at Northwest Christian University. Coty Richardson, a former associate professor at the University, was let go after she refused to conform to a lifestyle that was consistent with the University’s missions and goals. The University gave her an ultimatum; if Richardson continued to cohabitate outside of marriage then she would lose her job. Richardson sued the University for wrongful termination; she seeks $650,000 in damages and reemployment. Richardson’s alleges that she was terminated because she was pregnant and claims further that there was nothing in her contract with the University that stated she must be married if she became pregnant. The University takes the position that pregnancy is not the issue; rather Richardson’s publicly known lifestyle choices is what led to her termination. In a letter to Richardson, the University stated, “Conditions of your employment require compliance with the Faculty Handbook. The Faculty Handbook reflects that NCU is an academic institution with its foundation in the Christian faith. NCU’s goals include that of an institution of integrity, mindful of its heritage and Christian service.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with 15 employees or more from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”
Title VII was amended as follows: “The terms 'because of sex' or 'on the basis of sex' include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” However, the University denies that Richardson’s pregnancy is the reason for her termination and therefore it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. The University claims that if it engaged in discrimination, it was against Richardson’s religion, or lack thereof. Luckily for the University, that claim might fall under one of Title VII’s exemptions; “specially-defined ‘religious organizations’ and ‘religious educational institutions’ are exempt from certain religious discrimination provisions.”
In a similar case that came out of New York, a former employee of a private institution, Linden Seventh-day Adventists School, claimed that she too was terminated for being pregnant and unmarried. One of the institution’s main arguments was that the employee’s termination was justified because she failed to comply with their policy against fornication. This argument largely relied on the Establishment Clause which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...” U.S. Const. amend. I Ultimately the court in that case decided that the employee raised a genuine issue of material fact and it would be up to a jury to decide “whether defendant fired plaintiff because she violated the school's religious code, or whether defendant singled plaintiff out for termination because of her gender and pregnancy.” Redhead v. Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 566 F. Supp. 2d 125, 128 (E.D.N.Y. 2008)
One problem that the Northwest Christian University might face, which the defendant school in the Redhead case did not have, is that it has no policy which notifies employees that pregnancy or cohabitation without marriage is against their goals and it might have some trouble proving that the Christian religion in general will not accept these actions. Unlike Linden Seventh-day Adventists School, though, and maybe because of these concerns, the University gave Richardson the opportunity to remain employed if she ended her cohabitation outside of marriage, regardless of the pregnancy.