Moral turpitude ain't what it used to be

Posted: Nov 26, 2005 12:05 AM

What a funny world. Where once it was scandalous to be unmarried and pregnant, now it is scandalous to disapprove of another's being unmarried and pregnant.

The latest episode in these morally confused times occurred in New York recently when a Roman Catholic school fired a teacher because she is single and pregnant. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn claims that teacher Michelle McCusker violated "the tenets of Catholic morality" and thus could not be employed by the school.

For her part, McCusker claims she was discriminated against and on Monday filed a wrongful dismissal complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. McCusker, 26, a well-respected teacher, according to the school's own principal, said in a statement that she didn't "understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life" could fire her for deciding to have a baby.

Implicit in that statement is that McCusker obviously decided not to have an abortion, a result that would have been far more grievous to the Catholic Church.

So what's the answer? Do schools have any say-so when it comes to how teachers comport themselves in their private lives? Do parents have a right to voice objections when a teacher's private behavior contradicts the moral values they're trying to teach at home?

My immediate parental reaction to both questions is "but of course!" Then more reasoned thought reveals the murkiness of such issues. At the same time I don't want teachers advocating behaviors that are potentially harmful, my other reaction is: This is nobody's business. A person's sex life shouldn't be held up for public scrutiny and, as the discrimination suit points out, such policies unfairly target women.

Ultimately, these concerns will be determined by courts along legal rather than moral lines. But the moral questions beg open debate in a culture that increasingly denies the importance of marriage as a prerequisite to childbearing.

McCusker's isn't the first such case and, given our out-of-wedlock birthing trends, it won't be the last. Earlier this year, a kindergarten teacher at a private Christian elementary school in Berrien Springs, Mich., was placed on paid administrative leave until her contract expired in June because she got pregnant before she got married.

The teacher in that case, Christine John, did marry, but not until she was two months pregnant. Officials of the Seventh-day Adventist school said teachers are expected to be "a positive spiritual example for our congregations and youth," and let her go.

The problem of the single-and-pregnant teacher also has been tackled in a fictional treatment with the 1989 TV movie "Cast the First Stone." The movie's plot thickens the stew when a do-gooder teacher picks up a hitchhiker, who later rapes her at knifepoint and impregnates her. School officials assume "moral turpitude" and fire her.

The teacher, a victim who is also unaccountably stupid (when the hitchhiker fails to get another ride after she lets him out - in the rain just beyond her motel room - she invites him in), fights back and wins. Moral of the story: Judge not lest you be judged. Before I plod on, please forgive this brief interruption for a public service announcement on behalf of all teachers, especially women: Do no pick up hitchhikers. Do not let them in your motel room.

In other observations, we note that if unwed maternity is going to be a criterion for teachers, we're going to have to start hiring more men. At last count, one-third of all children in this country are born to unwed mothers. In the African-American community, the number is almost 70 percent. If we were to discriminate on the basis of unwed pregnancy, we might just have a teacher shortage.

The larger moral issue, meanwhile, isn't that yet another young lady didn't get the marry-first memo, but that the culture-at-large has decided fathers aren't necessary. When we celebrate single motherhood, as we have since Murphy Brown made out-of-wedlock birth a glam option for busy women, we can hardly pucker in disapproval when the next generation doesn't know any better.

Look around at cultural signposts, from television to movies to magazines, and you see a consistent message that men are nonessential to woman's higher reproductive prerogative. I wouldn't worry so much that children might infer a premarital sexual liaison between teacher and boyfriend. Far more offensive and morally dangerous is the cultural patricide taking place in America today. "Killing dad" may not be a crime, but it is surely a sin.