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Fired Ohio teacher’s suit shares issue with Fort Wayne case

CINCINNATI – Age 30 and single, Christa Dias wanted a baby and decided on artificial insemination. The results: a 14-month-old daughter she adores, a lost job and a federal discrimination lawsuit now moving forward that is being viewed as a barometer of religious organizations’ regulation over employees’ lives.

Dias charges that the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati and two elementary schools where she taught violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws by firing her in October 2010 because she was pregnant.

The archdiocese said she was fired because artificial insemination is immoral and violates church doctrine and a contract requiring all employees to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“Parents who pay to send their children to a Catholic school have a right to expect that those children will be educated in an environment that reflects Catholic moral teaching,” archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said in an email to The Associated Press.

Dias, who is not Catholic, says “nobody should control my right to have a child.”

Employment law experts expect issues in the case to draw national attention.

“People will be watching to see just how far religious organizations can go in imposing religious requirements on employees without violating anti-discrimination laws,” said associate professor Carolyn Seymour of Case Western Reserve University School of Law. She and others say there also will be interest in whether it tests a Supreme Court decision’s boundaries.

The court ruled in January against a former religion teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan who said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim over a disability. The court said she was a “ministerial employee” and religious groups can dismiss those employees without government interference.

The archdiocese urged the dismissal of Dias’ lawsuit, contending it could fire her because she taught at Catholic schools.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel waited for the January ruling before determining Dias’ 2011 lawsuit could proceed. He recently ruled Dias, who taught computer classes, had no apparent ministerial duties. No trial date has been set.

Dias, who does contract computer training from her home in suburban Withamsville, is seeking lost wages and benefits and unspecified damages and says she wants “to make sure they can’t do this to anyone else.”

She said she didn’t know artificial insemination violated Catholic doctrine.

“I don’t believe I did anything wrong,” Dias said.

She said school officials first said she was fired because she was unwed and pregnant, later changing the reason to artificial insemination to try to avoid allegations of violating pregnancy discrimination laws – a claim the archdiocese denies.

The Rev. Michael Seger, a moral theology professor at the archdiocese’s seminary, said the longstanding doctrine against artificial insemination stems from the belief that God’s plan is for a child to be conceived in a loving relationship between a husband and wife without technology interfering.

That doctrine relates to a married Hoagland teacher’s lawsuit against a Roman Catholic school and a diocese she says fired her for trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization.

Emily Herx’s lawsuit filed this month accuses the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and St. Vincent de Paul school in Fort Wayne of discrimination for her firing last June.

The church also opposes a plan to have religious institutions’ insurers pay for employees’ birth control.

All of these actions point to growing church’s efforts to control reproductive rights, according to Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

O’Brien said Catholic leaders have the right to preach in church on what they believe, “but I think there comes a time when the personal lives of citizens are none of their business.”

Judges in wrongful termination lawsuits against religious institutions in recent decades have tended to avoid deciding anything requiring them to interpret religious beliefs, with outcomes largely dependent on the employee’s religious role, said David Ball, a lawyer and part-time professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“I think the core issue here is whether religious employers can base termination on things that employees do in their private lives that are unrelated to job performance,” Ball said.

A federal appeals court in 1996 ruled against a preschool teacher who charged a Church of Christ school in Memphis, Tenn., with sexual discrimination for firing her when she became pregnant. Harding Academy contended that it could fire her because premarital sex violated its moral code.

A Maryland appeals court last year ruled a former music director who sued Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg in 2002 can pursue a sexual harassment claim that did not involve church ministry, but is barred by the ministerial exception from pursuing a retaliation claim over her firing.

A law professor at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, says the Supreme Court did not provide much guidance about what constitutes a ministerial employee.

“Over time this is going to be played out – who exactly is a minister – and we’re not yet sure what the answer is,” Michael Broyde said.

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