New Jersey’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Catholic school allowing them to make decisions to train students in the faith without the government’s interference.
In Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, a former teacher at a Catholic school in New Jersey sued the school, which is part of the Archdiocese of Newark, after the school did not offer her a new contract, arguing she had violated both her previous contract and Catholic teaching.
According to the lawsuit, Crisitello joined the St. Theresa elementary school in 2011. At the time, she signed an acknowledgment of her receipt and understanding of employment documents including the “Archdiocese of Newark Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct”, which contains its Code of Ethics.
However, in 2014 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, the principal told Crisitello that she had violated the Code of Ethics by engaging in premarital sex and thus could not remain on St. Theresa’s staff. They did not renew her contract the following year.
Crisitello filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on pregnancy and marital status.
A trial court initially ruled in favor of St. Theresa’s, finding that the law of discrimination “clearly protects a religious institution…in requiring that an employee…abide by the principles of the Catholic faith.”
But an appeals court reversed the decision.
Non-profit legal advocacy group, Becket Law, argued the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization that represents St. Theresa’s along with Orthodox Jewish schools in New Jersey.
They argued “to ensure that ministry remains strong, St. Theresa—like all other schools in the Archdiocese—requires all its staff to respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all staff must sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.”
“Teachers make the school,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, who argued the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court. “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.”
Becket also explained that church autonomy—which provides religious groups the power to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance—protects Orthodox Jewish schools and other religious schools.
The court, in a unanimous opinion, held that under New Jersey law, “The religious tenets exception allowed St. Theresa’s to require its employees, as a condition of employment, to abide by Catholic law.”
“This decision is a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey, but it is especially important for Orthodox Jews,” said Rassbach. “There are too many examples in history of governments interfering with Jewish schools, or worse. Today the Court did the right thing for Orthodox Jews and all other New Jerseyans by stopping this attempt to drag the government into direct control of religious schools.”
As CBN News has reported, Becket is also defending Moody Bible Institute in a similar case on the national level.
The school is asking a federal court to protect its ability to train students for Christian leadership free from the government’s interference.
The 137-year-old faith-based college and seminary states it simply wants to be free to decide matters of faith and doctrine—including the qualifications for those who hold senior church offices.
“For over 130 years, our school has trained and formed faithful Christian women and men who will commit their lives to spreading the gospel and bringing hope, joy, and love to all those in need,” said Dr. Mark Jobe, president at Moody Bible Institute. “This mission is rooted in Christ’s command to announce the good news to all people, and it has served as the bedrock of Moody since our founding.”