CINCINNATI (AP) — A jury found an Ohio archdiocese discriminated against a teacher fired after becoming pregnant via artificial insemination, leaving legal experts expecting an appeal they say could have a much wider legal impact.
Christa Dias, who was fired from two schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati in October 2010, was awarded more than $170,000 Monday after winning her federal anti-discrimination lawsuit against the archdiocese.
Dias' attorney, Robert Klingler, argued she was fired simply because she was pregnant and unmarried, a dismissal he said violated state and federal law.
Steven Goodin, the attorney for the archdiocese and the schools, contended Dias was fired for violating her contract, which he said required her to comply with the philosophies and teachings of the Catholic church. The church considers artificial insemination immoral and a violation of church doctrine.
The case, viewed as a barometer on the degree to which religious organizations can regulate employees' lives, is the second lawsuit filed in the last two years against the archdiocese over the firing of an unmarried pregnant teacher.
While Goodin said a decision would be made later on whether to appeal the verdict, legal experts believe it will definitely end up in an appeals court.
Jessie Hill, a professor of civil rights and constitutional law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, believes the "ministerial exception" issue could be raised on appeal.
The archdiocese argued before trial that Dias, who was a computer technology teacher, was a "ministerial employee," a position that has not been clearly defined by the courts.
The Supreme Court has said religious groups can dismiss those employees without government interference. But Klingler insisted Dias had no such ministerial duties, and the Cincinnati court found she was not a ministerial employee and that the issue couldn't be argued at trial.
Hill said the Supreme Court has left "uncertainty about who is and who isn't a ministerial employee," and she expects the case would be "closely watched at the appellate level."
David Ball, co-chairman of the Religious Organizations Subcommittee of the American Bar Association, doesn't think Dias fits the definition of a ministerial employee. He believes an appellate court may have to decide whether the case involves "impermissible pregnancy discrimination or permissible religious discrimination, when in fact it's both."
Ball believes the case could potentially be precedent-setting at the appellate level in dealing with "the conflict of religious employers' rights versus the rights of women seeking to reproduce."
Dias told The Associated Press in a phone interview after the verdict that she was "very happy and relieved" with the outcome of the lawsuit she said she pursued for the sake of other women who might find themselves in a similar situation. She said she also pursued it for "my daughter's sake, so she knows it's important to stand up for what's right."
The jury said the archdiocese should pay a total of $71,000 for back pay and compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. Dias had also sued the two schools, but the jury didn't find them liable for damages.
Klingler had suggested damages as high as $637,000, but Dias said she was satisfied with the jury's award.
"It was never about the money," she said. "They should have followed the law and they didn't."
Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said that for the archdiocese, it was "a matter of principle" and about "an employee who broke a contract she signed."
Dias, who is not Catholic, had testified she didn't know artificial insemination violated church doctrine or her employment pact. She said she thought the contract clause about abiding by church teachings meant she should be a Christian and follow the Bible.
Klingler said the case shows jurors are willing to apply the law "even to churches and religious organizations when non-ministerial employees are discriminated against."
But Goodin said he thinks the verdict could result in churches and religious organizations making their contracts "lock in" employees so specifically that it could be "hard to bring these types of lawsuits in the future."
Goodin had argued that Dias, who is gay, never intended to abide by her contract. She kept her sexual orientation a secret because she knew that homosexual acts also would violate that contract, he said.
Neither Dias nor the archdiocese claim she was fired because she is gay, and the judge told jurors that they could not consider sexual orientation in determining motivating factors for the firing.
Dias, formerly from a Cincinnati suburb, now lives in Atlanta with her partner and 2-year-old daughter, who she said "means everything to me."
Dias vowed to continue her fight "for what's right," even if the case is appealed.