- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

WILMINGTON, Del. — Michele Curay-Cramer knew when she let her name appear in an abortion rights advertisement in a local newspaper she might get fired from her teaching job at an all-girls Roman Catholic high school.

Sure enough — she was. Now she’s suing the school, the Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael Saltarelli.

Mrs. Curay-Cramer, who was fired from Ursuline Academy in January, says she was let go on Bishop Saltarelli’s orders after she refused to recant her views supporting abortion rights.

She contends her actions qualify as protected speech under the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1979. The church, which has been sued by other former employees on civil rights grounds, is contesting her claims.

Mrs. Curay-Cramer’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, says even private-sector religious employers are not exempt from the federal laws.

“We are all equal under the law,” he says. “You can’t get rid of people because they’ve spoken out about the rights of women. That’s sex discrimination.”

Diocesan officials issued a statement last week that they could not comment specifically on the claims.

“However, the Constitution guarantees every religious institution the right to practice and uphold the teachings of its faith, and the diocese and the bishop strongly support the right of every Catholic school to ensure that its faculty members teach and uphold the doctrine of the Catholic faith,” the statement reads.

School officials referred questions to attorney Barry Willoughby, who says Mrs. Curay-Cramer’s claims are without merit.

“Basically, we see it as a completely unjustified attack on the school’s right to have its principles upheld by its teachers,” Mr. Willoughby says. “What she did is fundamentally at odds with what the church teaches and what the school is trying to instill in young students.”

Under state and federal law, religious institutions can be exempt from prohibitions against religious discrimination that apply to other employers. But Mrs. Curay-Cramer contends the independently owned school is not directly controlled by the Diocese of Wilmington and cannot cite a defense built on its religious affiliation.

Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers in Philadelphia, says Mrs. Curay-Cramer faces a tough fight.

“I would be surprised if she took that to court that they would even hear it,” says Miss Schwartz, whose organization represents thousands of lay teachers in the eastern United States.

Others who ran afoul of church teaching also have lost the argument. Angel Meacham, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph School in Crescent Springs, Ky., was fired in August after diocesan officials learned she had remarried in a Presbyterian church without obtaining an annulment.

In Ohio, Vicki Manno is suing St. Felicitas Elementary School in Euclid, its principal and the parish pastor. She was fired this past summer for remarrying in June without obtaining a church annulment.

Last year, two teachers at Lauralton Hall, an all-girls Catholic school in Milford, Conn., were told they had to resign or be fired after officials learned of their lesbian relationship and their plans for a commitment ceremony. The Catholic Church, like virtually all Christian denominations, does not recognize same-sex unions.

In addition to her discrimination claims, Mrs. Curay-Cramer says that in publicizing her dismissal, school and diocesan officials defamed her and invaded her privacy. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and reinstatement as a classroom teacher.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the school, the diocese, Bishop Saltarelli, former Ursuline President Barbara Griffin and school spokesman Jerry Botto.

“You can believe that a woman has a right to choose, and you can also believe that abortion should be the last possible option,” Mrs. Curay-Cramer says.

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