Catholic School Teacher Fired, Called 'Grave, Immoral Sinner,' For Infertility Treatments

Emily Herx couldn't have children. She suffered from a diagnosed medical condition that causes infertility, but she and her husband were determined. A Catholic school teacher, Herx asked her principal to take some sick days so she could undergo fertility treatments, reports the Journal Gazette. Soon after, she was fired. Herx was a "grave, immoral sinner," according to the the pastor of the school's church, and was being let go because of her "improprieties related to church teachings or law."

Now, in a case that may test the limits of how much religious schools can control the behaviors of their non-ministerial staff, Herx is suing the school, and the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese. She is claiming sex discrimination and disabilities discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She's requesting lost wages, punitive damages, attorney's fees, and compensation for her "mental anguish and emotional distress."

Herx taught literature at the school since 2003. Four years ago, she and her husband began fertility treatments. She told the principal about it beforehand, and according to the lawsuit, she replied, "You are in my prayers."

In March, 2010, Herx emailed the principal, saying she needed to schedule sick days for her in vitro fertilization treatments. The principal didn't object at all, according to the lawsuit. But over a year later, when Herx emailed again about taking time off for a second round of IVF treatments, the principal told her to meet with Rev. John Kuzmich, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

Kuzmich allegedly told her that he'd received a complaint from another teacher about her treatments, and he feared a scandal was brewing. Soon after, Herx was given notice that her contract would not be renewed for the next school year, even though Herx had never taken more sick days than she was allotted, her lawsuit states.

Gravely Immoral

She met with school officials a month later, with her father, a lawyer, by her side. Kuzmich allegedly told her that her termination had nothing to do with her ability to the job -- Herx received great evaluations -- but everything to do with her flouting the values of the Catholic Church. He said that she should have just kept it all a secret, saying some things were "better left between the individual and God."

Kuzmich also apparently didn't really understand exactly what IVF treatment was. But he still considered her "a grave, moral sinner," according to the lawsuit.

That phrasing comes straight from the Catholic Catechism, which says "techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife" are "gravely immoral." But that judgment only applies when another person is involved, like a donated ovum, or surrogate mother. Artificial insemination that involves only the biological mother and father is "morally unacceptable," but "perhaps less reprehensible," the Catechism states.

Last December, another Catholic school accused a teacher of a "grave immoral act" and fired her for using artificial insemination. The Cincinnati school said the woman had violated her employment contract by betraying Catholic teachings. Earlier this month, the woman passed the first hurdle in her lawsuit, when a federal judge gave her the green light for a trial.

The Catholic Church vs. Women's Wombs

Herx's father appealed the decision to Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who's particularly sensitive to female reproductive issues infringing on the rights of the church. He's publicly bashed the new federal mandate that all employers or insurers, including religious ones, provide coverage for their employees' contraception.

"In vitro fertilization ... is an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it," he allegedly replied, because it "very frequently involved the deliberate destruction or freezing of human embryos."

Herx says her treatments never involved destroying an embryo. Male employees of the school, she also says, have received fertility treatments, like vasectomies, but weren't penalized by the school.

The Illegal Kind Of Discrimination

Religious institutions are exempted from some workplace discrimination laws when it applies to religious workers, such as a minister. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled it was legal for a Lutheran school to fire a teacher for taking disability leave, because the teacher was legally a minister; she taught religious classes and led daily prayer.

But Herx didn't teach religious classes. She wasn't required to have any Catholic education or training for the job, and wasn't ordained or given a religious title, according to the lawsuit. The IRS doesn't give her the tax exemption that ministers receive.

Religious schools can also fire non-religious teachers, if their behavior goes against the teachings of the church. In February, a music teacher at a Catholic school was fired after church officials learned of his plans to marry his gay partner of 20 years.

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