Unequal enforcement of "morality clauses" scrutinized after Catholic school fires teacher for becoming pregnant

"The majority of sins do not present themselves with hairy palms, growing noses, crossed eyes, or anything else"

By Katie McDonough

Published February 10, 2014 8:08PM (EST)

                (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-624322p1.html'>Jjustas</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Jjustas via Shutterstock)

A Catholic school teacher who had been hailed by her principal as an "excellent teacher" was dismissed after her pregnancy was reported to the school.

Shaela Evenson is not married, and her decision to have a child violated the morality clause of her employment contract -- a fireable offense.

By deciding to have a child even though she wasn't married, Evenson “made a willful decision to violate the terms of her contract” Superintendent Patrick Haggarty told The Montana Standard.

This kind of discrimination is hardly unusual, as Molly Redden and Dana Liebelson at Mother Jones point out:

Firing unwed teachers who become pregnant is not uncommon for private religious schools. It's not necessarily illegal, either. Although federal law generally forbids discrimination against pregnant women, the Supreme Court has ruled that religious employers are protectedfrom certain discrimination lawsuits brought by employees who serve in ministerial roles. For example, they have the right give preference to job candidates who share their religion, if the purpose of the job is primarily religious.

But as Redden and Liebelson also note, schools that enforce these clauses must do so equally against men and women. This standard around sex outside of marriage is harder to apply without the kind of "evidence" of sexual activity entailed in a visible pregnancy, so heterosexual men who have these relationships are not penalized in the same way.

In a recent legal analysis of these laws, Lauren Fisher, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, pointed this out. "The majority of sins do not present themselves with hairy palms, growing noses, crossed eyes, or anything else that would make one's sins obvious -- except for the one instance in which there is glaring evidence of moral transgression: pregnancy outside of marriage," she said.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Catholic Schools Morality Clauses Motherhood Pregnancy