In October, Teri James says her supervisor at San Diego Christian College called her to her office and got straight to the point: Was James pregnant?
James, 29, of El Cajon, Calif., was indeed pregnant – and she was also unmarried, a violation of school rules, according to the lawsuit she filed in San Diego County superior court. She says she was fired because, as the termination letter included in the suit stated: “Teri engaged in activity outside the scope of the Handbook and Community Covenant that does not build up the college’s mission.”
Speaking by phone with her lawyer, Gloria Allred, James said she felt humiliated.
"I had to leave right after the meeting. I had to go into the office with all of my co-workers and say I'm leaving," James said. "I never came back so I don't know what my co-workers thought, but for me, it was humiliating. I felt like I was in trouble."
Also insulting, James said, was that after firing her, the school offered a job to her then-fiancé – they are now married – even though it was known that he, too, engaged in premarital sex. He did not accept the job, she said.
In filing the suit, James joins a group of women who in recent years have sued the religious schools that fired them for getting pregnant out of wedlock. In each case, the school pointed to moral codes, “community covenants” and handbooks that employees must sign, typically every year, promising to abide by school rules.
San Diego Christian College asks that its employees sign its “community covenant,” a two-page contract that asks its community, which includes employees and about 500 students on-site, to abstain from drugs, alcohol and tobacco and “abusive anger, malice, jealousy, lust, sexually immoral behavior including premarital sex, adultery, pornography and homosexuality, evil desires and prejudice based on race, sex or socioeconomic status.”
"We all had to sign it," James said. "I needed a job in this economy and so I never thought that anything would happen -- I just needed a job."
Added Allred: "It does not say that you will be fired if you do not comply."
San Diego Christian College did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The college has not responded to the suit.
James, who had worked at the college as a financial aid specialist for two years, signed the letter in August, weeks before she became pregnant. She is currently six-and-a-half months pregnant with a boy, due in June.
In two recent cases out of Ohio, two moms-to-be say they were fired by Catholic schools after they told the principals at their schools they were pregnant.
In Kettering, Ohio, Ascension Catholic School first-grade teacher Kathleen Quinlan became pregnant with twin girls in the fall of 2011. Four days after Christmas that year, she was told she would lose her job, according to a lawsuit she filed in December in U.S. District Court in Southern Ohio.
The lawsuit notes that Quinlan was not an ordained minister and that she did not lead children in prayer. The point may seem random, but it is a reference to a unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down in 2011, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. The high court dismissed a lawsuit by a Christian schoolteacher who alleged she was fired for a disability, saying that churches and their schools may choose who will minister to their faithful.
Court records include Ascension School’s letter to Quinlan, which stated that she was fired because she did not comply with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. But her suit says that her gender played a large role in her dismissal because it does not become obvious when men have premarital sex.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati filed a response to the suit this week, admitting that she had told church leaders she was pregnant and that she was fired for a breach of contract.
In nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, Christa Dias, who oversaw computer systems at Holy Family and St. Lawrence schools, became pregnant by artificial insemination. According to the 2011 suit she filed in U.S. District Court, she says she was fired because church officials said artificial insemination is a violation of Church doctrine.
The court handed down their decision last month, which did not come out in Dias' favor because she was living with a long-term female partner, a violation of the very contract she was saying the church had breached. But the court determined that she could not be considered a minister because she was not Catholic and was not responsible for religious instruction. The court said it wasn't enough to call her a role model simply because she was affiliated with a religious school.
So can a school fire an unmarried, pregnant woman?
Simply put, yes, if she violated a school contract. But it's not clear cut, as case law has not settled these claims, said spokeswoman Christine Nazer of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission via email.
An organization can require employees not to engage in premarital sex but cannot fire her because she becomes pregnant, Nazer explained.
Back in San Diego County, James says she hopes that the lawsuit will change the lives of women employed by Christian organizations.
"I want to pave the way, say, Christian organizations, you can't necessarily fall back on this," she said. "You can't hurt people like this. If you say that you stand for love and mercy and grace -- stand for those who are weak."