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Professor Sues Religious University After Allegedly Being Fired For Getting Pregnant


Now a story about a professor in Oregon who says when she told her employer she was pregnant, she got a pink slip instead of congratulations. That's because she worked at a Christian school and because she's not married. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Coty Richardson spent four years teaching exercise science at Northwest Christian University. She says she loved in the small classes at the school in Eugene, Ore., and she loved its values and caring environment.

COTY RICHARDSON: Christ-centered community that's based on, you know, loving one another, loving yourself, kindness, tolerance of other individuals.

JOHNSON: But Richardson says that tolerance was put to the test earlier this summer when she told her boss she was pregnant. Richardson says she thought they'd discuss arrangements for her to give a take-home exam at the end of the fall semester. That's right when her baby boy is due. Instead, she says, her supervisor had something else on his mind.

RICHARDSON: Just got straight to the point and said, you know, the academic piece of this is not the issue. The issue is that you're pregnant - that you'll be showing soon. People will start asking questions about your personal situation, and so what is that?

JOHNSON: Richardson says her employer eventually gave her a choice - break up with the father of the child or get married fast. She refused to do either.

RICHARDSON: You know, this is a professional environment, and they really have no place meddling and making demands in my personal life.

JOHNSON: Managers at Northwest Christian University disagreed. They fired Richardson. She's now suing them for discriminating against her on the basis of gender, pregnancy and marital status.

JASON RITTEREISER: Firing an individual because an individual had premarital sex, I think, is marital discrimination.

JOHNSON: That's Jason Rittereiser, the lawyer for Coty Richardson.

RITTEREISER: Because the individual would not be subject to that restriction if they were married.

JOHNSON: Rittereiser says religious employers like Northwest Christian have wide latitude when it comes to the employment of clergy or ministers.

RITTEREISER: But the law also indicates that when an employee whose job and essential functions really have nothing to do with a ministerial function that religious institutions - churches, regularly employers - are all subject to the employment laws, and they must follow the employment laws.

JOHNSON: Northwest Christian officials didn't want to talk on tape. In a written statement, University president Joseph Womack said the school operates within the covenants and freedoms inspired by its faith. He says he can't comment on the pending lawsuit. Douglas Laycock is a law professor at the University of Virginia who closely follows freedom of religion cases. Laycock took a look at the Oregon case, including letters the school sent Richardson - letters that accused her of violating its core values by having sex outside of marriage.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: That's what the church's interest in these cases is. She's undermining the mission.

JOHNSON: Laycock says Oregon has no religious freedom act of the books and the federal statute called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can't be used in the school's defense because this case centers on state law. Coty Richardson says she can understand why people at the school reacted negatively to her pregnancy, but she says no one's perfect.

RICHARDSON: In my opinion, there's optimal and then there's real life. And would it be ideal, you know, for life to go perfectly and flawlessly? Of course. I think we would all get on board with that. Does it happen that way? Not usually.

JOHNSON: She says the dispute with her school has consumed her summer and created a lot of stress for her family. Now, she says, she can't afford health insurance with a baby on the way in November. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.