Before she conceived her daughter, who is now a toddler, Christa Dias worked as a technology coordinator in two Ohio parochial schools, both governed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
This same diocese now owes Dias more than $170,000 — $100,000 in punitive damages, $20,000 in compensatory damages, and $51,000 worth of back pay — as the result of a wrongful dismissal suit. After revealing her pregnancy at 5 ½ months gestation, when she went to speak to school administrators about her options for maternity leave, Dias lost her jobs at Holy Family School and St. Lawrence Elementary.
The Archdiocese alleges that she was fired for a breach of her contract, which stipulated that she must “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church” since she was a teacher at a Catholic school. Dias was an unmarried woman, then-closeted but now living openly as a lesbian in Atlanta, who conceived her child via artificial insemination. No one involved in the case claimed that Dias’ sexual orientation played a role in her dismissal. However, the Church considers both out-of-wedlock pregnancy and artificial insemination to be serious moral problems.
The particular circumstances of Dias’ pregnancy are addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple — donation of a sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus — are gravely immoral. These techniques — heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization — infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ “right to become a father and a mother only through each other”.
As a non-Catholic, Dias might never have come into contact with the Catechism. (Indeed, many Catholics have never read it!) She testified in court that she was unaware of the Church’s teaching on artificial insemination. She interpreted the contract she signed based on her own less-doctrinal understanding of what it means to be a Christian — reading and following the Bible, living by the example of Jesus… (you know, heresy.)
A jury found Dias’ dismissal unjust, but legal experts expect the case to be appealed. It touches on several dramatic and controversial issues. For instance, the law permits religious organizations to impose religious restrictions on their ministerial employees. But who qualifies as a “ministerial employee,” involved in the transmission of faith? Does the mere fact of teaching non-religious subjects in a parochial school make one subject to the same rules as a religious minister?
The case also raises some concerns about whether morality clauses in employment contracts are legally enforceable. To what extent is it fair to permit religiously-affiliated employers to enforce or police employees’ adherence to dogma outside of the workplace?
Dias has also pointed out that the school’s pregnancy-based policies are inherently biased against women, since men who participate in artificial insemination or who father children out of wedlock are invisible and therefore not subject to punishment.
In an ironic final twist, James Kiffmeyer, the pastor who fired Dias, was himself in a spot of trouble in 2002, when he was suspended from his position and stripped of his priesthood as a high school teacher following allegations of sexual misconduct involving two male students. The Vatican overruled Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk by restoring Kiffmeyer’s priestly status and commanded him to “closely guard his personal behavior.” They then reassigned him to the position he held when he removed Dias from her job. (A year ago he left the priesthood and now works in a pharmacy.) How’s that for a double-standard?
Meanwhile, Dias says she’ll keep fighting even if the ruling is challenged.