CINCINNATI – A Catholic school teacher who was fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination was awarded more than $170,000 Monday after winning her anti-discrimination lawsuit against an Ohio archdiocese.
A federal jury found that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati discriminated against Christa Dias by firing her in October 2010.
Dias, who taught computer classes, declined to comment immediately after the verdict but said later in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that she was "very happy and relieved."
The jury said the archdiocese should pay a total of $71,000 for back pay and compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. Dias had sued the archdiocese and two of its schools; the jury didn't find the schools liable for damages.
Dias' attorney, Robert Klingler, had argued she was fired simply because she was pregnant and unmarried, a dismissal he said violated state and federal law. He had suggested damages as high as $637,000, but Dias said she was satisfied with the jury's award.
"It was never about the money," she said. "They should have followed the law and they didn't."
Steven Goodin, the attorney for the archdiocese and the schools, had argued Dias was fired for violating her contract, which he said required her to comply with the philosophies and teachings of the Catholic church. The church considers artificial insemination immoral and a violation of church doctrine.
"We gave always argued that this case was about a contract violation and should never have been allowed to come to trial," Goodin said after the verdict.
He said that while he was disappointed in the finding against the archdiocese, he was relieved the schools were not held liable, saying that would have proven a financial hardship for them.
Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said after court that for the archdiocese, it was always "a matter of principle" and about "an employee who broke a contract she signed."
Dias, who is not Catholic, testified she didn't know artificial insemination violated church doctrine or her employment pact. She said she thought the contract clause about abiding by church teachings meant she should be a Christian and follow the Bible.
The case, viewed as a barometer on the degree to which religious organizations can regulate employees' lives, is the second lawsuit filed in the last two years against the archdiocese over the firing of an unmarried pregnant teacher.
The archdiocese had argued prior to trial that Dias was a ministerial employee and that the Supreme Court has said religious groups can dismiss those employees without government interference. But Klingler insisted Dias had no such duties, and the court found that she was not a ministerial employee.
Klingler said the case shows jurors are willing to apply the law "even to churches and religious organizations when non-ministerial employees are discriminated against."
Goodin said he thinks the verdict could result in churches and religious organizations making their contracts "lock in" employees so specifically that it could be "hard to bring these types of lawsuits in the future."
While Goodin said a decision would be made later on whether to appeal, legal experts believe it will definitely end up in an appeals court.
Issues they believe could be raised include how to define a ministerial employee and how to resolve the conflict between religious employers' rights versus the rights of women seeking to reproduce.
Dias also has claimed that the church policies are not enforced equally against men and women.
Goodin argued that Dias, who is gay, never intended to abide by her contract. She kept her sexual orientation a secret because she knew that homosexual acts also would violate that contract, he said.
Neither Dias nor the archdiocese claim she was fired because she is gay, and the judge told jurors that they could not consider sexual orientation in determining motivating factors for the firing.
Dias, formerly from suburban Cincinnati, now lives in Atlanta with her partner and their 2-year-old daughter.
Dias said she pursued the lawsuit "for the sake of other women" who might find themselves in a similar situation. She also said she filed it for "my daughter's sake, so she knows it's important to stand up for what's right."