The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati expects to go to trial soon to defend the 2010 firing of an unmarried teacher who used artificial insemination to get pregnant.
Religious freedom advocates say the case could clarify the rules when faith-based employment decisions collide with anti-discrimination laws.
In last year's landmark Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously said a "ministerial exception" exempts religious employers from federal employment and disability laws.
But the ruling hasn't stopped lawsuits against churches and Christian schools for morals-related firings. Legal experts don't see a spate of recent suits in Texas, Florida, and Georgia as a trend—but they do consider them a harbinger of a coming wave.
"I would predict there will be more over time," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "You'll get more people who think it's perfectly fine to co-habitate and are genuinely surprised that a church employer feels otherwise."
Given this situation, Christian institutions must regularly update lifestyle covenants, said Tom Cathey, director of legal issues for the Association of Christian Schools International. Cathey counsels his 25,000 member schools to be forthright with staff about moral expectations and causes for dismissal.
"If their lifestyle agreements fit within the definition of church autonomy, then they'll absolutely win," said University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck.
Those who get sued shouldn't panic either, since many cases fizzle or settle in pre-trial proceedings.
The latter is common, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He understands that schools often want to make such cases "just go away," but such secrecy robs other schools of a chance to apply lessons learned.
"It doesn't clarify if something is right or wrong," he said. "It doesn't allow schools to realize how vulnerable they might be."
Sometimes schools lose even when the employee is a leader. Several months after Hosanna-Tabor, a jury found Christian Academy of Wichita Falls, Texas, guilty of retaliation after firing its former headmaster (who filed a gender discrimination claim).
Despite the verdict, Jeff Mateer of the Liberty Institute thinks Hosanna-Tabor means most fired school employees who sue will lose.
"It's part of a larger issue," he said. "It's the First Amendment conflicting with employment law and other federal law. I'm confident the Constitution will win."
Update (Feb. 7): Courthouse News Service reports that Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the case of the lesbian who was fired after undergoing artificial insemination, will head to a jury. The trial is slated to begin March 19.
Update (Feb. 15): High-profile lawyer Gloria Allred has filed a similar lawsuit against San Diego Christian College.
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