Blog of Rights

Taking a Stand Against a 21st Century Scarlet Letter

By Mie Lewis, Women's Rights Project at 10:49am

Today, we filed suit in federal court on behalf of Jennifer Maudlin, a single mother who was fired when her employer learned that she was pregnant. Jennifer's employer – a religiously-affiliated community organization called Inside Out – says that it fired Jennifer for violating its unwritten rule against non-marital sex.

What happened to Jennifer amounts to discrimination based on pregnancy status and gender. Why? Because Inside Out learned about its workers' sexual lives by looking at its women workers' bellies. In fact, Jennifer and other women workers who became pregnant had to hide their bellies for as long as possible because they were terrified of being found out and fired. Unmarried men who had sex, and even those who became fathers, had nothing to fear, because – of course – their bellies wouldn't give them away. In Jennifer's workplace, pregnancy became a "scarlet letter," marking unmarried employees for termination.

The treatment of women workers at Inside Out also subjects women workers to mistreatment based on sex stereotypes. When a person can be thrown out of work because she decides to – or must – take on motherhood alone, what are we as a society saying about her? That she's unworthy of any further association with her coworkers? That she's unfit to participate in economic life? That she doesn't deserve to be able to eat, or pay rent, or buy gas?

Add to that the effects of such discrimination on the children. At least half of children growing up in the U.S. today will spend some if not all of their childhoods in a single-parent family. Single parent families have the highest poverty rate in the country, and the highest rate of lacking health insurance – which in the U.S. is usually provided by an employer. We'd be kidding ourselves to think that employment discrimination against single mothers leaves kids unharmed.

Jennifer's case, and others like it, are reminiscent of a past when women were routinely pushed out of the workplace because of pregnancy. Such discrimination is now illegal, even if religiously motivated. We all have a right to our religious beliefs, but this does not give employers the right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against their employees.

It's also worth noting that policies like that at Inside Out don't just threaten single mothers. When bosses go so far as to police their employees' off-the-clock, off-site sexual lives, personal privacy goes out the window. With the power to take away one's livelihood, employers wield enormous power over their workers. In Jennifer's case, that power was abused, and we filed suit today to set things right.

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