Teacher fired over pregnancy can sue religious school

Reuters News
Posted: May 18, 2012 2:00 PM
Teacher fired over pregnancy can sue religious school

By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - An appeals court on Wednesday revived a Florida teacher's lawsuit against a Christian school that fired her after she admitted to conceiving a child before her marriage.

Overturning a lower court ruling in the school's favor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that Jarretta Hamilton was entitled to a trial on her claims of pregnancy discrimination by the Southland Christian School in St. Cloud, Florida.

The fourth-grade teacher informed administrators in April 2009 that she was pregnant and needed to take maternity leave. During the conversation, she admitted that she had conceived the child three weeks before her February wedding.

The school fired her a week later. Administrator John Ennis explained that "there are consequences for disobeying the word of God," according to the court opinion.

Hamilton sued the school in 2010 under a federal law that bars discrimination based on pregnancy, seeking compensation for lost wages and emotional distress.

A federal district court ruled in the school's favor before a trial, finding that Hamilton failed to establish that she was fired for her pregnancy rather than moral concerns over her premarital sex.

The three-judge appeals panel disagreed.

The Atlanta-based court pointed to evidence that the school may have been more concerned about Hamilton's request for leave than about her admission to having premarital sex.

Ennis expressed concern over finding a replacement teacher, Hamilton testified.

"Hamilton has established a genuine issue of material fact about the reason that Southland fired her. The ultimate issue is one for a jury to decide," Judge Edward Carnes wrote for the unanimous panel, sending the case back to the lower court for a trial.

David Gibbs, a lawyer for Southland Christian School, said in a statement that he would vigorously defend the school's religious rights before the district court. Edward Gay, who represented Hamilton, was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Xavier Briand)