(CN) – A Christian school must face claims that it fired a pregnant teacher to avoid granting maternity leave, not because the teacher admitted to premarital sex, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Jarreta Hamilton began teaching at Southland Christian School in January 2008. A month after she and her then fiance became pregnant, the couple married.
But when Hamilton asked the Osceola County, Florida, school for maternity leave in April 2009, Southland’s administrator and assistant administrator, John and Julie Ennis, wanted to know if Hamilton had been pregnant at her wedding.
Hamilton confirmed that she had, and Southland fired Hamilton the following week. John Ennis explained: “there are consequences for disobeying the word of God.”
Southland then told the parents of Hamilton’s students that their teacher had conceived before marriage.
In 2010, Hamilton, represented by Edward Gay of Orlando, sued Southland Christian School on two counts of discrimination and one count of invasion of privacy.
After Southland moved for summary judgment on all counts, a federal judge ruled for the school on the pregnancy discrimination and marital status discrimination claims. Finding that Hamilton could not identify a similar situation where the school treated a nonpregnant employee differently, however, the judge dismissed the invasion of privacy claim without prejudice.
Hamilton appealed only the court’s grant of summary judgment on the pregnancy claim, and this time found favor in the Atlanta-based federal appeals court.
“When analyzing pregnancy discrimination claims, we use the same type of analysis that we use for sex discrimination claims,” Judge Edward Carnes wrote for the three-judge panel.
“Southland contends that Hamilton has not presented enough circumstantial evidence to raise a reasonable inference of intentional discrimination because she undisputably cannot show a nonpregnant comparator who was treated differently,” Carnes added. “But she does not have to show a comparator if she can show enough noncomparison circumstantial evidence to raise a reasonable inference of intentional discrimination, and she has done that.
“Hamilton presented evidence that, in making the decision to fire her, Southland was more concerned about her pregnancy and her request to take maternity leave than about her admission that she had premarital sex.”
The ruling cites Hamilton’s deposition where she said she was unsure if Southland was upset about her request for maternity leave because of the premarital sex or because it involved taking time off.
John Ennis had allegedly said, “we feared something like this would happen,” and said the Hamilton would have to take the whole school year to avoid the difficulty of finding a replacement for part of the school year.
“Hamilton has established a genuine issue of material fact about the reason that Southland fired her,” Carnes wrote. “The ultimate issue is one for a jury to decide.”
The ruling notes that Southland cannot rely on recent Supreme Court precedent about the ministerial exception because the school failed to raise the issue earlier.