The case of Michelle McCusker, the unmarried and pregnant teacher fired by a Catholic school, may turn out to be an important one, with heavy impact on our understanding of religious liberty. The New York Civil Liberties Union is handling her suit, and if the school and the local diocese don’t fold their cards and settle, the NYCLU will lose in court And it deserves to.
McCusker, 26, is suing the Diocese of Brooklyn and St. Rose of Lima school in Queens for dismissing her as a pre-kindergarten teacher last fall. That was two days after McCusker told her principal that she was three months pregnant and had no intention of marrying the father. The school praised her work and expressed sympathy, but said she had to leave because an unmarried pregnant woman is an inappropriate role model and authority figure in a Catholic school. Besides, the teachers’ personnel handbook says “a teacher is required to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition.” McCusker signed a contract accepting that rule.
Along with her supporters, McCusker thinks the church should be a little more understanding and pleased that she didn’t abort. Secularists, and many religious people, take an instrumentalist view: so long as an employee plays by the rules at work, his or her private life doesn’t matter.
The NYCLU complaint goes much further. It says the church and the school violated a federal law banning discrimination against pregnant women. To avoid gender discrimination, the NYCLU says, the school should have to show it is willing to move against unmarried male teachers who impregnate their lovers. This is an odd argument for a civil liberties union to make-that to justify firing a pregnant and single employee, a school should make some effort to monitor the sex lives of its male teachers.