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Fired teacher sues over abortion-rights issue

She says the Catholic school, despite its teachings, is stepping beyond its bounds in dismissing her for lending her name to an abortion-rights ad.

By Associated Press
Published November 15, 2003

WILMINGTON, Del. - Michele Curay-Cramer knew that when she let her name appear in an abortion-rights advertisement in a local newspaper she might get fired from her teaching job at an all-girls Roman Catholic high school.

Sure enough - she was. Now she's suing the school, the Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael Saltarelli.

Curay-Cramer, who was fired from Ursuline Academy in January, claims she was let go on Saltarelli's orders - after she refused to recant her views supporting abortion rights.

She contends her actions qualify as protected speech under the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1979. The church, which has been sued by other former employees on civil rights grounds, is contesting her claims.

Curay-Cramer's lawyer, Thomas Neuberger, said even private sector religious employers are not exempt from the federal laws.

"We are all equal under the law," he said. "You can't get rid of people because they've spoken out about the rights of women. That's sex discrimination."

Diocesan officials issued a statement last week saying they could not comment specifically on the claims.

"However, the Constitution guarantees every religious institution the right to practice and uphold the teachings of its faith, and the diocese and the bishop strongly support the right of every Catholic school to ensure that its faculty members teach and uphold the doctrine of the Catholic faith," the statement read.

School officials referred questions to attorney Barry Willoughby, who said Curay-Cramer's claims are without merit.

"Basically, we see it as a completely unjustified attack on the school's right to have its principles upheld by its teachers," Willoughby said. "What she did is fundamentally at odds with what the church teaches and what the school is trying to instill in young students."

Under state and federal law, religious institutions can be exempt from prohibitions against religious discrimination that apply to other employers. But Curay-Cramer contends the independently owned school is not directly controlled by the Diocese of Wilmington and cannot hide behind its religious affiliation.

Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers in Philadelphia, said Curay-Cramer faces an uphill battle.

"I would be surprised if she took that to court that they would even hear it," said Schwartz, whose organization represents thousands of lay teachers in the eastern United States.

Schwartz said most negotiated work contracts have "faith and morals" clauses and that schools without such job contracts usually have employee handbooks spelling out acceptable behavior.

"I don't know of many that don't have some type of acknowledgment that the people working for the Catholic school must abide by the morals of the church," she said. "When you go to work at a Catholic school, you kind of know that certain things go with the territory."

Others who ran afoul of church teaching also have lost their jobs.

Angel Meacham, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph School in Crescent Springs, Ky., was fired in August after diocesan officials learned she had remarried in a Presbyterian church last year without obtaining an annulment.

In Ohio, Vicki Manno is suing St. Felicitas Elementary School in Euclid, its principal and the parish pastor. She was fired this summer for remarrying in June without obtaining a church annulment.

Last year, two teachers at Lauralton Hall, an all-girls Catholic school in Milford, Conn., were told they had to resign or be fired after officials learned of their lesbian relationship and their plans for a commitment ceremony. The Catholic church does not recognize same-sex unions.

The women's lawyer, Maureen Murphy, said the case was settled and that her clients are teaching elsewhere. "I think sexual orientation will continue to be an issue," Murphy said.

In Delaware, Curay-Cramer said she was aware when she added her name to the abortion rights ad that it could cost her her job.

"My husband and I talked about it extensively," said Curay-Cramer, a practicing Catholic who described herself as both "prolife" and "prochoice."

Curay-Cramer was hired by Ursuline in June 2001 and taught English and religion. Less than a year later, she began volunteering for Planned Parenthood, whose services include abortion.

On Jan. 22, the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, Curay-Cramer's name appeared along with more than 600 others in an abortion rights ad published in the News Journal of Wilmington.

She was fired five days later after being given the option of resigning or recanting her beliefs publicly.

At the time, Saltarelli said he was "very, very pleased and proud" of the school's response, but a diocesan spokesman suggested the bishop found out about the firing "after the fact."

In addition to her discrimination claims, Curay-Cramer alleges that in publicizing her dismissal, school and diocesan officials defamed her and invaded her privacy. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and reinstatement as a classroom teacher.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the school, the diocese, Saltarelli, former Ursuline president Barbara Griffin and school spokesman Jerry Botto.

"You can believe that a woman has a right to choose, and you can also believe that abortion should be the last possible option," Curay-Cramer said.

[Last modified November 15, 2003, 01:34:29]


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