social discrimination

NJ Court Ruled That Religious Institutions Can Fire an Employee if They Do Not Follow Religious Tenets

By Tom McKinney
NJ Employment Attorney

A new ruling from New Jersey’s Supreme Court upheld that religious institutions have the right to fire employees who fail to abide by established religious tenets. The case sets a new precedent in the state. 

This new outcome identifies that when an employee has agreed to follow a religious code of ethics and doesn’t, the institution can fire them without fear of committing wrongful termination

A New Ruling on Pregnancy Discrimination: What to Know About the Case

New Jersey’s Supreme Court announced a new ruling in August 2023. The case centered around a Catholic elementary school and a former student hired as a teacher in 2011. 

Working at the school involved agreeing to the school’s code of ethics. These hiring terms required employees to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

The lawsuit began with a new job offer in 2014. At the time, the teacher was asked if she’d like to take a full-time position. The unmarried teacher explained to the principal that she was pregnant. A few weeks later, the principal fired the teacher. 

The principal explained that the reason for the termination was that the unmarried teacher had violated the school’s code of ethics. Catholic Church doctrine explicitly forbids sex between individuals who are not married in the church. 

The school made the case that the teacher’s status as an unmarried pregnant woman showed that she had violated Catholic doctrine, so she had also broken the school’s code of ethics. 

The teacher filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the school. She claimed that she was the victim of wrongful termination based on pregnancy discrimination. Ultimately, the case was dismissed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in August 2023. 

The court decided that religious institutions can hire and fire employees who have agreed to follow religious beliefs. The final decision identified that the ability to fire employees who failed to live up to religious expectations is protected under the First Amendment. 

Because of this, the school’s decision to fire the teacher didn’t qualify as an act of discrimination. 

Implications for Future Wrongful Termination Cases in New Jersey

The state’s new ruling raises interesting questions about whether anti-discrimination laws apply to religious institutions. Despite this outcome, it doesn’t give religious institutions carte blanche when hiring or firing their employees. 

Whether an employer can follow employment practices that would usually be considered employment discrimination ultimately depends on whether an employee has agreed to terms of employment that include following a religious institution’s practices and beliefs. 

The court’s decision makes it clear that if an employee has agreed to such terms, the First Amendment extends to protect a religious institution’s ability to hire or fire employees when they violate such terms.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to whether freedom of religion or employee rights take precedence. The New Jersey Supreme Court shows that in the eyes of the state’s highest legal authority, the right to religious freedom supersedes anti-discrimination laws.  

Consult an Employment Law Firm to Learn About Your Rights

New Jersey’s ruling in the case confirms that religious institutions may have more leeway regarding their hiring and firing practices in the future. A terminated employee should always take the time to speak with a lawyer before accepting termination. 

NJ Employment Lawyers, LLC is an experienced New Jersey employment law firm. We work with employees who have been the victims of wrongful termination, pregnancy discrimination, and many other forms of discrimination in the workplace. 

If you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated or have otherwise been the victim of workplace discrimination, contact us to schedule a consultation. 

About the Author
Tom McKinney is a skilled employment law attorney with New Jersey Employment Lawyers LLC. He has a track record of success in all areas of employment law, including sexual harassment, discrimination, harassment, wrongful discharge, whistleblower claims and hostile work environment claims. Besides litigation, Tom handles severance agreements and severance package reviews/negotiations for over 100 people each year. If you have any questions regarding this blog, contact Tom here.