Anti-Abortion Group Backs Fired Pregnant Teacher


Feb. 20, 2006 — -- When Michelle McCusker, 26, got a job teaching preschool at St. Rose of Lima, a Catholic school in Queens, N.Y., she fulfilled a longtime dream.

"That's what I want to do, to be able to give something to children, it's amazing," McCusker said.

But then McCukser -- who is Catholic and single -- became pregnant. She decided to keep the baby and informed the school early in the school year.

The school -- backed by the Brooklyn Diocese, which oversees Catholic churches in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens -- fired her.

"The school requires its teachers to convey the faith, to convey the gospel values and Christian traditions of the Catholic faith," said Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

The teachers' handbook clearly states that teachers "must convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions," De Rosa added, and by having out-of-wedlock sex McCusker was not conveying the teachings of the faith.

McCusker was devastated to think that she'd have to leave the school, especially mid-year.

"Just knowing that I wouldn't be able to see my kids and finish out the school year with them," McCusker said in an interview with ABC News, while crying. "It really ... and it was my first teaching job so, and they took it away."

McCusker and the New York Civil Liberties Union are suing the school, claiming gender discrimination.

"Michelle McCusker was fired from her job as a pre-K teacher because she was pregnant," said Donna Lieberman, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. "This is a policy that the church applies to women but not to men.

"Only women employees are subject to being fired for being pregnant or having engaged in non-marital sex," she added. "They don't apply that policy to male employees. That's gender discrimination. It has nothing to do with religion."

In a similar case in 2003, the NYCLU filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the unmarried pregnant director of an afterschool program in Buffalo demoted by the Catholic charity that employed her. In that case, the EEOC found that the charity had violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

But what's unique about the case at St. Rose of Lima is that an anti-abortion group has sided with McCusker, claiming that the Catholic school was essentially encouraging abortion.

Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, talks about McCusker at anti-abortion rallies, saying taking away a woman's job and income for being pregnant is anti-life.

"If you take away the resources, you could unintentionally drive a woman to having an abortion," said Foster.

"It is not pro-life to take away the resources and support that women need and deserve to bring children into this world," Foster says. "The appropriate response for the employer when they found out she was pregnant, is to say, 'Congratulations,' and, 'How can I help?' "

A 2004 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights but is cited by both sides in the abortion wars as having reliable data, indicated that 73 percent of those seeking an abortion were doing so because they could not afford to have a baby.

"We have to systematically eliminate the reasons that drive women to abortions, and the root causes are lack of resources and lack of support," Foster says. "Women deserve both."

The legal issues are tricky in this case -- religious organizations have wide latitude in employment decisions based on religious beliefs and behavior.

Last week in Hoover, Ala., a federal judge upheld the firing of another unwed pregnant teacher from a fundamentalist Christian school. The school argued that Tessana Lewis was not fired because she was pregnant but because she had sex outside of marriage.

Jurors had awarded in Lewis's favor, giving $600 in back pay and $15,000 for mental anguish, but U.S. District Judge William Acker Jr. found that because the Covenant Classical School of Trace Crossing is a religious institution, it can make hiring and firing decisions based on its beliefs.

"The constitution gives the school the right to make these kinds of decisions," said DeRosa, the Brooklyn Diocese spokesman. "The church -- or the school, part of the church -- does not want to discriminate under any circumstance, but wants to have the freedom to function as an agency that teaches, in this case, the Catholic religion or the Christian tradition and the gospel of values that are associated with it."

This was a very, very difficult situation for the principal, DeRosa added, "and while we're concerned for [McCusker's] welfare and the welfare of the child, at the same time the school had an obligation, and always will have that obligation, to present those Christian values and the tradition and the gospel message that parents want their children to hear when they place their youngsters in a school like that."

The philosophical issues are perhaps even more complicated. After all, McCusker says, the most Christian thing she can do is to have her child.

"Here I'm being persecuted because I'm pro-life having my baby, and they fire me for it," McCusker said. "I hope that no other woman ever has to go through this. … It's been very stressful."

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