In a big win today for religious institutions of all denominations, the New Jersey Supreme Court released a decision finding that religious institutions may follow the tenets of its faith in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment, and that the state's anti-discrimination laws do not apply when they conflict with the employer's religious beliefs.

The case was brought by Plaintiff Victoria Crisitello against defendant, the Church of St. Theresa (St. Theresa’s), alleging employment discrimination contrary to the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), when she was fired from her position as an art teacher and toddler room caregiver because she became pregnant while unmarried in violation of the terms of her employment agreement, which required employees to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The St. Theresa School is a Roman Catholic elementary school that uses the official “Archdiocese of Newark Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct,” the first section of which contains its Code of Ethics. In part, the Code of Ethics requires employees to “conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the discipline, norms and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

In 2011, St. Theresa’s hired Crisitello, a former student, who signed an acknowledgment of her receipt and understanding of employment documents including the Code of Ethics. In 2014, Sister Lee, the school principal, approached Crisitello about the possibility of teaching art full time. During their meeting, Crisitello stated that she was pregnant.

A few weeks later, Sister Lee told Crisitello that she had violated the Code of Ethics and thus could not remain on St. Theresa’s staff.

Crisitello filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination based on pregnancy and marital status. 

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of St. Theresa’s, explaining that “the record is bare of any evidence that even remotely suggests that Crisitello’s pregnancy out of wedlock is not the real reason for her termination.”

The Appellate Division reversed this ruling, holding that “knowledge or mere observation of an employee’s pregnancy alone is not a permissible basis to detect violations of the school’s policy and terminate an employee.” The court also distinguished this case from the 2020 case ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, on the basis that Crisitello did not perform “vital religious duties."

The appellate court also ruled that despite Crisitello’s concession -- that she knew premarital sex violated the tenets of the Catholic Church -- neither the Code of Ethics nor the employee handbook expressly mentioned premarital sex or that it would result in termination, therefore the school could not use this as a basis to terminate her employment.

St. Theresa’s appealed this ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In a ruling written by Justice Solomon, and joined in by Chief Justice Rabner, Justice Patterson, and Judge Haas (temporarily assigned), with a concurrence filed by Justice Pierre-louis, the State's highest court today reversed the Appellate Division's ruling, and granted victory in favor of St. Theresa’s.

Justices Wainer Apter and Fasciale and Judge Sabatino (temporarily assigned) did not participate in this case.

The judges concluded that the “religious tenets” exception of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a), which states that “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice” for a religious entity to follow the tenets of its faith “in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment” -- is an affirmative defense available to a religious entity when confronted with a claim of employment discrimination. Here, it is uncontroverted that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church interminating Crisitello. St. Theresa’s was therefore entitled to summary judgment and the dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.

The LAD provides in part that it is unlawful for an employer “to discharge” an employee “because of . . . marital status . . . [or] pregnancy.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a). 

Although the LAD encompasses a wide variety of employment actions, it intentionally, and explicitly, declines to create a cause of action for others. For example, “it shall not be an unlawful employment practice . . . for a religious association or organization” to follow “the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee.” Because the Legislature thus expressly prescribed an exception to liability under the LAD based on a religious institution’s reliance on the tenets of its faith in setting employment criteria, the religious tenets exception is an affirmative defense which must be pled and proven. If it is pled and proven, the employer need not contest the plaintiff’s allegations. In LAD cases where a religious employer invokes the religious tenets exception, the employer must demonstrate that the challenged employment decision relied solely on employment criteria adopted pursuant to the tenets of its religion. If the plaintiff employee fails to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the challenged decision relied solely on the religious tenets of the employer, then the affirmative defense stands as an absolute bar to liability. Determining whether a religious employer’s employment action was based exclusively on the tenets of its religion requires application of only neutral principles of law and does not impermissibly entangle the courts in ecclesiastical matters.

Based on the facts of this case, St. Theresa’s has validly asserted the religious tenets exception as an affirmative defense. The undisputed evidence of record shows that Crisitello confirmed receipt and understanding of documents including the Code of Ethics. The religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law, including that they abstain from premarital sex. Crisitello, a practicing Catholic and graduate of the St. Theresa School, acknowledged that St. Theresa’s required her to abide by the tenets of the Catholic faith, including that she abstain from premarital sex, as a condition of her employment. The record evidence demonstrates that St. Theresa’s consistently maintained its position that Crisitello was terminated for violating Catholic law by engaging in premarital sex. Cisitello has presented no evidence to counter St. Theresa’s asserted position. 

The Court rejects the Appellate Division’s novel suggestion that Crisitello’s firing was evidence of pretext simply because St. Theresa’s did not “survey” its employees to discover other transgressions of the faith. Neither the LAD nor case law requires such an investigation, and the Court declines to impose this burden. Here, because Crisitello offers no evidence that the reason given for her termination was false, there exists no dispute of material fact and St. Theresa’s is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 

Agudath Israel of America, represented by Attorneys Eric C. Rassbach, Mark M. Roselli, and Daniel D. Benson Esq. of Roselli Griegel Lozier & Lazzaro and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed an amicus curiae brief on the case. The brief argued that religious schools should have the ability to control their own internal operations in religious matters without outside involvement from secular courts. Agudath Israel thanks the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Eric Rassbach and Daniel Benson for their work on this brief.

This case has important ramifications for Jewish schools and all religious institutions in New Jersey,” said Mr. Daniel Kaminetsky, general counsel for Agudath Israel of America. “Teachers serve as role models for children, and it is entirely appropriate for religious schools to insist that they conduct themselves in ways that comport with religious standards. It would be highly improper for government to interfere with a religious schools decision to terminate a non-compliant teacher’s employment.”

“A significant precedent has been set by the state of New Jersey,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office. “With the help of yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, children in religious schools across New Jersey are protected from adverse influences. We hope to see similar protections become commonplace across the country.”

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