Friday, March 31, 2017

You’re Unmarried and Pregnant? You’re Fired: Case Follow-Up

Back in August 2015, we blogged about an employer, Northwest Christian University, who terminated a pregnant and unmarried associate professor, Coty Richardson, after she refused to conform to a lifestyle that was consistent with the University’s missions and goals.  The University gave Richardson three options:  stop cohabiting with the father of her child, marry the father of her child, or be terminated.  Richardson refused the first two options and, upon her termination, filed suit against the University alleging discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and marital status, as well as other state law claims.

The University initially argued that Richardson’s claims were barred by the First Amendment, relying on the ministerial exception which protects religious institutions from discrimination statutes concerning relationships between the institution and its ministers.  The Oregon district court, however, rejected the University’s argument, since Richardson was an assistant professor of exercise science and neither underwent religious training or held herself out as a minister.  The district court also rejected the application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which prevents courts from interfering "in the internal affairs" of religious organizations to "resolve religious controversies that incidentally affect civil rights."  The court concluded that despite being a religious institution, the University had to abide by federal and state employment laws.

The district court ultimately held that the University unlawfully discriminated against Richardson on the basis of her marital status since it would have continued to employ her if she remained single and stopped cohabiting with the father.  However, the fate of Richardson’s pregnancy discrimination claims will be left to a jury.  Richardson’s pregnancy discrimination claims largely rested on her allegation that the University’s extramarital sex/cohabitation policy treats unmarried pregnant women differently than non-pregnant unmarried women.  The court stated that, as a general rule, employers can subject their employees to a morality clause.  A juror could conclude that the University was merely attempting to prevent sex outside marriage since it had previously enforced its extramarital sex/cohabitation policy against three other non-pregnant employees.  The court further stated that the University only became concerned when Richardson, an unmarried employee, became visibly pregnant, a clear indication that she was sexually active.  In addition, the court noted that Richardson had two children when the University first hired her and only brought up its extramarital sex/cohabitation policy when she disclosed her pregnancy.  The court's analysis concluded as follows:
"A juror could conclude those pieces of evidence show defendant was less concerned about its employees having sex outside of marriage and more concerned about people knowing its employees were having sex outside of marriage - a concern that arguably amounts to animus against pregnant women. Because reasonable jurors could disagree regarding pretext, neither party is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s pregnancy discrimination claims."
Counsel for Richardson has initiated a petition in support of her reinstatement: