NYCLU Defends Pregnant School Teacher Fired By School

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
November 21, 2005 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union today charged a private Catholic school with discriminating against an unmarried Catholic schoolteacher by firing her because she became pregnant.

Michelle McCusker’s employment was terminated even as school officials praised her teaching ability and her “high degree of professionalism.” The NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project has filed a complaint on McCusker’s behalf with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

“Michelle McCusker was fired because she chose to have a child,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “This is blatant pregnancy discrimination, which is both wrong and illegal. The NYCLU believes that all women like Ms. McCusker should have the right to choose to bring their pregnancies to term without being fired for it.”

McCusker was hired to teach pre-kindergartners at the St. Rose of Lima School in Queens in September 2005. Her teaching contract was to last for one year. A month after school began, McCusker, who is single, informed the school’s principal that she was pregnant and planned to have the child. Two days later, the principal told McCusker that she was being terminated because she violated the school’s religious principles by becoming pregnant while unmarried. The school principal said she could work only until the end of October.

After the NYCLU wrote the school’s principal on McCusker’s behalf, urging her reinstatement, the school moved up the termination by a week and rescinded permission for McCusker to say good-bye to her students.

“I have been devastated over this incident,” said Michelle McCusker. “This was my first teaching position and I was excited and looking forward to the school year with my young students. I don’t understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving could terminate me because I am unmarried and choose to have a baby.”

The NYCLU complaint charges that the school’s decision to fire McCusker was intentional and unlawful discrimination based on her gender and pregnancy. The school enforced its policy of prohibiting sex outside of marriage only after learning that McCusker was pregnant. Because only women can become pregnant, the school enforced the policy in a way that has a disproportionate impact on women and therefore is illegal, the NYCLU said in legal papers.

“The school fired Ms. McCusker ostensibly for engaging in non-marital sex, but neither the school nor the Diocese that runs the school enforces this policy against men,” said Anna Schissel, Acting Director of NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “Applying different policies to men and women employees is classic sex discrimination.”

McCusker’s case is similar to a complaint filed by the NYCLU in 2003 on behalf of the director of an after-school program employed by a religious charity. When the unmarried program director became pregnant, the charity demoted her to a position that involved no student contact. The NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project filed an EEOC complaint against the charity alleging sex and pregnancy discrimination. The EEOC found that the religious charity violated federal anti-discrimination laws by demoting the teacher because of her pregnancy. The NYCLU secured a favorable settlement that included the adoption by the charity of an employment policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status or pregnancy.

“The federal law against pregnancy discrimination was passed in 1978,” said ACLU Reproductive Rights Project staff attorney Cassandra Stubbs. “Ms. McCusker’s case, unfortunately, demonstrates the gap between the promise of the law and what is happening in the workplace today. After more than 25 years there is still much work to be done to ensure that women who decide to become pregnant and have children can go to work in an environment free of discrimination.”

In addition to losing her job while pregnant, McCusker is facing difficulties finding full-time employment, as the school year has begun and most institutions are no longer hiring, Stubbs noted.

The NYCLU is asking the school to adopt a non-discrimination policy similar to the policy adopted in the 2003 case.

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