By Cynthia L. Cooper
Sunday, May 6, 2007
A teacher fired after using in vitro fertilization is taking her case to Wisconsin's Equal Rights Division. She joins a roster of others penalized by the Catholic school system. Fourth in a series on women changing religious institutions and practices.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Alexandria weighed only 2 pounds, 7 ounces when she was born 10 weeks premature in March 2005 and her twin sister, Allison, weighed less, 2 pounds and one-half ounce; tiny even for babies conceived through in vitro fertilization. "But they were strong and they were fighters," said mother Kelly Romenesko of Appleton, Wis.
Romenesko is also fighting. She was fired as a French teacher by the Catholic school system where she worked soon after she and her husband confirmed the pregnancy. This spring, she will get a hearing before the state's Equal Rights Division to determine whether ACES/Xavier Educational System in Appleton unlawfully discriminated against her.
"Our case is based on selective enforcement of the rules and pregnancy discrimination," said James C. Jones, Romenesko's lawyer.
School administrators told Romenesko she violated a "morals clause" in her contract to "teach and act in accordance with Catholic doctrine and Catholic moral and social teachings." According to a November 2004 written decision of the school system's board of trustees, "the medical procedure followed by Kelly Romenesko is in violation of church doctrine" and constituted a breach of the morals clause. Calls to the school's attorney were not returned.
Romenesko argued that a male teacher whose wife gave birth after in vitro fertilization had not been similarly disciplined, and that she was fired after the pregnancy, not after the fertilization treatment.
In February, an administrative law judge from the state's Department of Workforce Development issued a finding of probable cause that the Catholic school system had engaged in pregnancy discrimination.
On reproductive decisions, the 150,502 lay teachers at Catholic schools throughout the United States can find themselves squeezed by a dogma that opposes birth control, sterilization, reproductive technologies and abortion, despite state and federal laws against sex discrimination and widespread usage among Catholics. Seventy-five percent of lay Catholic teachers are women, according to the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, D.C.
"Some of the morality issues do discriminate against women," said Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic Teachers, a union based in Philadelphia that represents one-quarter of the lay teachers in Catholic schools. "Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of ways to get around that." Religious institutions, she said, are bound to follow the law, but they are given more leeway when religious concerns are invoked.
Schwartz advises union members to keep quiet about reproductive health care decisions. "If teachers call me about in vitro fertilization or tubal ligation, I would tell them, 'Use your husband's medical plan,'" said Schwartz. "If you don't flaunt it, they're not going to delve into your private lives."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops leaves these matters to local schools and dioceses, said spokesperson Bill Ryan. The National Catholic Educational Association said there is no national policy on morals clauses and also declined to comment.
To Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., teachers are trapped in "a culture of dishonesty."
Ninety-seven percent of Catholic women use artificial birth control, according to a survey by the organization, and Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholics. "The sad thing about a crackdown on teachers is that it is part of day-to-day living in a hypocritical situation," he said.
Drama teacher Marie Bain was fired from a Catholic school system in Sacramento, Calif., in 2005 when an anti-abortion activist and parent complained that Bain had been an escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic before teaching at the school.
"I did nothing that broke any law. I did nothing illegal. I did nothing. All it takes is one fanatic," said Bain. "It knocked my life into a tailspin."
After winning a settlement from the school system, Bain wrote and performed a one-person play, "Baby Killer: Fired for Immorality," which she is now remaking into a DVD.
In June 2006, a federal circuit court of appeals rejected the claims of Delaware teacher Michele Curay-Cramer, who was dismissed from her post teaching English at a Catholic-affiliated girls' school after her name appeared in a list of 600 people on a pro-choice newspaper ad.
When confronted by administrators who demanded that she publicly recant, she declined, said Stephen Neuberger, her attorney. Her contract did not have a morals clause, but the federal appeals court refused to apply anti-discrimination laws. "We would be meddling in matters related to a religious organization's ability to define the parameters of what constitutes orthodoxy," the court wrote in its opinion.
Claire McCaskill, the senator from Missouri who is also a Catholic, was rebuffed last week by the high school her daughter attends. McCaskill was scheduled to appear as commencement speaker at St. Joseph's Academy in Frontenac, Mo., but an archbishop directed the school to withdraw her invitation because of her pro-choice stance on abortion and stem-cell research.
The Cardinal Newman Society, headquartered in Manassas, Va., monitors the nation's 224 Catholic college campuses and issues condemnations on speakers or activities that take positive positions on reproductive freedom, gays or sexuality, including performances of Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues."
"Obviously abortion is the biggest issue you're going to run across," said Marc Perrington, the society's outreach director. "The university is giving a platform to these people and is giving them tacit approval."
In February, the group protested a lecture at Loyola University in New Orleans by Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. In March, it objected to a film festival at the University of San Francisco for screening "Rosita," which shows the difficulties of Nicaraguan parents in seeking an abortion for their 9-year-old daughter after she was raped.
A key target is Dr. Daniel Maguire, author of the 2001 book "Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions" and a tenured professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.
In March, the U.S. Conference of Bishops charged that Maguire's views are contrary to the church's faith.
"They are impaled on pelvic orthodoxy, fixating on all sexual reproductive issues," said Maguire. "Eight-five percent of all the calls I get concern only one issue: abortion. Not peace, not poverty, not racism, not sexism. And I think that is an unwholesome fixation."
The Cardinal Newman Society is releasing a list of 2007 commencement speakers to whom it objects. Among them is Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan who will speak at the University of Notre Dame, put on the group's list because she supported stem-cell research and a gay-positive course. Also on the list is Martha Coakley, the attorney general of Massachusetts who will speak at Regis College, because she supports stem-cell research, is pro-gay and "pro-abortion," said Perrington.
The organization has no complaints about upcoming commencement addresses of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will speak at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, or fellow Justice Samuel Alito, who will speak at Saint Mary's College in Indiana. Both recently voted to support the first federal ban on abortion.
"They don't publicly hold anything against the Catholic faith as far as we know," said Perrington.
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York City who writes frequently about reproductive justice.
This series is supported by The Sister Fund.
Catholics for a Free Choice:
Cardinal Newman Society:
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