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The case of Michelle McCusker, the 26-year-old school teacher alleging employment discrimination because the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., terminated her for being unmarried and pregnant, could be perceived by some as sympathetic or downright unfair. The situation is not novel, however, and the diocese, which runs St. Rose of Lima School in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., is likely to win. According to the diocese, McCusker violated key principles contained in the teacher’s personnel handbook that requires a teacher to “convey the teaching of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition.” Certainly, one would have to agree that having sex outside of wedlock violates those Christian principles. McCusker’s case is substantially similar to one that a federal court in Orlando, Fla., dismissed in February. In that case, 22-year-old Laura Woodall was terminated from employment shortly after she announced her pregnancy in April 2002. Like McCusker, Woodall was not married. Like the Brooklyn diocese, Woodall’s employer, Rockledge Christian School, claimed that Woodall had violated the terms of her employment, namely the “Christian Role Model Covenant” she signed at the time of her hire. Among other things, she agreed to abstain from alcohol and drugs, sexual promiscuity and profane language, both at work and in her personal life. Woodall’s position as a teaching assistant and daycare assistant required her to be a Christian role model and to incorporate the Bible and Christianity in all aspects of her responsibilities. Because the church felt that Woodall violated a fundamental biblical principle by engaging in premarital sex, it terminated her on the basis that she no longer qualified to be a Christian role model. Woodall later filed a lawsuit against the church claiming that her termination constituted both pregnancy and gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Florida law. Equivalent of a minister It was undisputed throughout the case that Woodall regularly discussed Jesus with her students, took them to chapel every week and assisted the teacher in preparing faith-based lesson plans. As a result, at the close of discovery, Rockledge filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over her claims. Rockledge argued that Woodall was the functional equivalent of a minister to the children she taught. Because a church has the right to choose its ministers, it would be improper under the First Amendment for a court to interfere with church governance of its own affairs. On Feb. 12, the federal court in Orlando entered an order dismissing the suit entirely. The court determined that even though Woodall had never attended seminary or had formalized biblical training, her responsibilities placed her in the position of a functional minister because her primary purpose was to teach the Bible and church precepts to 3-year-old children attending the school. The court held that a church’s selection of its own ministers is such a core matter of ecclesiastical self-governance that a court or state cannot constitutionally interfere with such decisions. It further held that Rockledge “may state as a . . . condition of employment as an assistant teacher that engaging in premarital sexual relations is against church law, and the court cannot interfere or analyze the propriety of such a tenet.” It added that “[I]nterpreting Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination to apply to [Rockledge's] decision would raise serious constitutional questions under both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses,” and the court is not permitted to seek any further inquiry. Woodall v. Pentecost Evangelical Churches Inc., d/b/a Rockledge Christian Center, No. 6:03-CV-1658 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 12, 2005). This decision provides important guidance to other faith-based organizations. Rockledge was able to prove that Woodall was a functional minister because it had numerous documents, instructions and guidelines for its teachers and teaching assistants that made clear that the Bible was to be incorporated in all aspects of the teaching responsibilities and interactions with the children and their parents. The Christian Role Model Covenant made clear that the teacher had a responsibility, both in and out of school, to be a Christian role model for the parents, children and other employees, and that a failure to do so would have a negative impact on the educational process. Woodall and all other teachers were required to sign this document. The more proof that a religious organization has that reflects its intent regarding duties and responsibilities of the teachers who are expected to minister directly to children, the better able the organization will be to withstand the types of challenges faced by Rockledge Christian and the Brooklyn diocese. Suzanne Bogdan is a partner at Fisher & Phillips in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which represents employers nationally. She was one of the attorneys representing Rockledge Christian School in the Woodall case. She may be reached at [email protected].

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