ATLANTA -- 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.