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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Church Can Fire Teacher Over Live-In Boyfriend

(CN) - A California preschool teacher cannot claim wrongful termination against an evangelical church that fired her when it learned she was living with her boyfriend and raising a child with the man out of wedlock.

Sara Henry started teaching at the Red Hill Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tustin in 2002 and became preschool director the following year.

The church required its employees to practice Christianity and be "involved in a church-based setting on a regular basis," according to the court. Henry, who is Catholic, signed the Red Hill's "ministry commitment" in 2008, acknowledging that she is an "at-will" employee, hired to "minister to our students and families."

Henry was married when she applied to Red Hill, but she later divorced and had a child with her boyfriend in June 2007.

The following year, school principal Cindy Jordan said she overheard parents express disappointment with Henry's "living situation." Jordan and a church pastor met with Henry in April 2009 to discuss Henry's marital status.

Henry told Jordan that she and her boyfriend planned to get married, but they did not know when. Red Hill fired Henry the following month for living with her boyfriend and raising their son together without getting married.

Henry sued for wrongful termination under the state constitution and the Fair Employment and Housing Act. An Orange County judge ruled for the church, finding that Henry was fired for violating a church precept.

Henry appealed, but the San Diego-based Fourth Appellate District ruled that the church is exempt from the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The court also denied Henry's argument that the church violated public policy by firing her, since Red Hill fired the teacher for living with her boyfriend, not for getting pregnant or having the baby out of wedlock,.

"What the church could not allow was to have Henry, its face and representative to the students and the parents of the students who attended its school, to continue living in what it considered a sinful manner," Justice Eileen Moore wrote for the court.

"In other words, if Henry stopped living with her boyfriend, she could continue in her job," he added. "That being the case, the evidence at trial indicates her employment was terminated based upon a matter of religion, not her sex and not her having had a baby out of wedlock."

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