Court hears case of fired Fla. teacher

Apr 10, 2012, 6:31 PM

Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) – After fourth-grade teacher Jarretta Hamilton went to the principal of her Christian school with the news she was pregnant, he responded: You’re fired.

Her lawsuit against the school came before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, and the three-judge panel is wrestling with its decision.

A lawyer for Hamilton argued that she’s the victim of discrimination, that the principal fired her because she was pregnant and her maternity leave was going to be inconvenient for the school. A lawyer for the school countered that the school has a right to fire someone who violates its moral code and raised a recent Supreme Court decision that acknowledged the existence of an exception to anti-discrimination laws for churches.

Hamilton was teaching at the nondenominational Southland Christian School in St. Cloud, Fla., in February 2009, when she married Samuel Treftz. About two months later, she and her husband met with principal Jon Ennis to request maternity leave. During the meeting, Hamilton told Ennis the baby was conceived before the two were married. Hamilton was fired a short time later.

What led to the firing is at the heart of the legal feud.

Hamilton claims in her lawsuit that Ennis was more concerned with the cost of having to replace her on maternity leave than he was with any moral concerns. In her lawsuit, she also claimed that Ennis never asked her male counterparts similar questions about their sexual histories.

“This is a case where it’s blatantly gender discrimination because they made the inquiry of my client as to her pregnancy,” said Edward Gay, Hamilton’s attorney. “She came in to discuss maternity leave and he began asking questions about when she was conceived. He made inquiries that weren’t made to any males regarding what their conduct was.”

To Ennis, though, it’s a clear-cut moral issue. His lawyers say all Southland employees were given a handbook which charges them to serve as Christian role models for the students and families. It didn’t specifically forbid premarital sex, but it encouraged teachers not to put administrators in the “very difficult situation” of disciplining faculty who don’t comply with policy.

When Hamilton told him of her premarital sex, his attorneys said in court filings, he was left with few options.

“He could not leave Hamilton in her position before students, parents, and staff as an example not supported by the moral precepts of Southland,” his attorneys argue in court records.

“Ennis made the only choice possible in accordance with his religious beliefs and the dictates of the tenets of his faith: He chose to adhere to the values of his religious educational institution and to dismiss Hamilton and not offer her a contract for the upcoming school year.”

A federal judge ruled against Hamilton in July 2011, finding that she failed to prove she was treated differently than other Southland employees who engaged in premarital sex while working for the school.

Circuit judges Ed Carnes, Beverly Martin and Adalberto Jordan focused most of their questions on whether Ennis had a mixed motive when he fired Hamilton and whether Hamilton can be considered a minister because of her role at a religious school.

Carnes said previous court records indicate that Ennis said “both reasons” when Hamilton asked whether she was being fired because of her pregnancy or because she had premarital sex. That seems to be “direct evidence of a mixed motive” Carnes said.

Ennis’ lawyer David Gibbs argued the timing of her firing proves that it wasn’t motivated by the pregnancy. If that had been the case, Ennis would have refused to offer her a contract for the next year so that he wouldn’t have to accommodate her maternity leave in October, Gibbs said. Instead, Ennis fired her almost immediately because she had engaged in premarital sex rather than letting her finish the school year, Gibbs said.

Carnes also said the case is more complicated than it initially seemed and that it “might turn on whether the school was itself a church.”

The Supreme Court in January acknowledged the existence of a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws _ a doctrine developed in lower court rulings. This doctrine says the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of such protective laws when the issue involves employees of these institutions.

Gibbs argued that this case should clearly be one of ministerial exception, that her role as a teacher at this Christian school meant Hamilton was “legally and constitutionally a minister.” Gay argued that it is significant that the school is not affiliated with a specific church or even a specific denomination and that ministerial exception should only apply if there is a direct affiliation.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

An American flag waves in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, Monday, June 27, 2022, in Washi...
Associated Press

Supreme Court backs coach in praying on field after games

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Monday that a high school football coach who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution, a decision that opponents said would open the door to “much more coercive prayer” in public schools. The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the conservative […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

US officials return to Venezuela amid gas price hike

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — Senior Biden administration officials have quietly traveled to Caracas in the latest bid to rebuild relations with the South American oil giant as the war in Ukraine drags on, driving higher gas prices and forcing the U.S. to recalibrate other foreign policy objectives. The delegation that arrived Monday in Caracas includes […]
17 hours ago
In this photo provided by Dax McDonald, debris sits near railroad tracks after an Amtrak passenger ...
Associated Press

A look at recent Amtrak derailments and other crashes

An Amtrak passenger train struck a dump truck Monday at an uncontrolled crossing in a rural area of Missouri killing two people on the train and one in the truck. Others were injured. The crash happened just after noon near Mendon, Missouri. Several cars derailed. The train was traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago. The […]
17 hours ago
FILE - Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Ma...
Associated Press

Manchin: Commission on veterans facilities to be dismantled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A group of U.S. senators has agreed to effectively dismantle a commission tasked by the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry out closures, downsizing and other significant medical facility changes nationwide, Sen. Joe Manchin said Monday. The West Virginia Democrat, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said there is […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Pennsylvania House targets colleges’ fetal research in bill

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A proposal to require Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities to promise they are not conducting research or experiments with fetal tissue from elective abortions was added to a state budget bill by House Republicans on Monday. The chamber voted 108-92, with three Republicans crossing party lines, for the amendment to legislation that […]
17 hours ago
FILE - Britney Spears and Sam Asghari appear at the Los Angeles premiere of "Once Upon a Time in Ho...
Associated Press

Britney Spears’ ex ordered to trial on stalking charge

VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — A California judge found Monday that there is enough evidence against a man once briefly married to Britney Spears who showed up uninvited at the pop star’s wedding to go to trial on a felony stalking charge. After a two-hour preliminary hearing, Ventura County Judge David Worley ruled that 40-year-old Jason […]
17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.

Best retirement savings rates hit 4.30%

Maximize your retirement savings with guaranteed fixed rates up to 4.30%. Did you know there is a financial product that can give you great interest rates as you build your retirement savings and provide you with a paycheck for life once you retire? It might sound too good to be true but it is not; this product is called an annuity.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Court hears case of fired Fla. teacher