Fired For Premarital Sex?

Teri James filed a lawsuit after being fired.Religious and reproductive rights have been going head to head in recent months, and a 29-year-old San Diego woman is the latest to land in the crossfire. Teri James claims that her former employer, a Christian college, fired her for getting pregnant outside of marriage, in violation of church values. And now she's suing, with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred by her side.

James worked as a financial aid specialist at San Diego Christian College for two years, reports CBSLA.com. The college claims that James, like all employees, signed a pledge when she was hired to live consistently with Christian values, and refrain from behaviors like lying, adultery, pornography, homosexuality and premarital sex.

When the school discovered that the unmarried James was pregnant, it gave her a termination notice, CBSLA.com reports, accusing her of "engag[ing] in activity outside the scope of the handbook and community covenant."

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"I was an unmarried pregnant woman," James said at a tearful press conference, "and they took away my livelihood, they stripped me of my dignity, and humiliated me."

Allred, the famed defender of scorned women, who's filed suits against Arnold Schwarzenegger, Herman Cain and Tiger Woods, among others, is now suing the private evangelical college, claiming that it discriminated against James based on her gender, pregnancy and marital status.

"This is really mainly going to have an adverse impact on women, because how would they know the couples are having pre-marital sex?" Allred explained. "How would they know a man's having premarital sex? The way they know a woman's having premarital sex is if she's married, and she's pregnant, and she's showing." San Diego Christian College could not be reached for comment.

The case falls into murky legal territory, because while it is illegal under federal and California law to fire someone for being pregnant, or to discriminate against someone's gender, there exists an exception for religious institutions. To give these organizations the freedom to choose leaders who follow their values, the so called "ministerial exception" prohibits "ministers" from suing their employer for discrimination.

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Several pregnant women have fought these cases, after being fired for in vitro fertilization or premarital sex. The problem is that the courts have not clearly defined who a minister is. Last year, for the first time, the Supreme Court decided that a teacher at a church-run school, who taught mostly non-religious classes, counted as a minister, and so couldn't sue.

But last March, an Ohio U.S. District judge ruled that a parochial school teacher, who was fired for getting pregnant through artificial insemination, did not qualify as a minister, because she was a non-Catholic computer science teacher who in no way taught Catholic doctrine. And James wasn't a teacher at all. As CBSLA.com reports, her only interactions with students were by phone.

"She was a financial aid specialist, so unless she had some ministerial duties it would be hard for them to prove this exemption applies," says Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer and author of "Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired." And while religious institutions are allowed to engage in religious discrimination, Ballman adds, they can't discriminate based on pregnancy or gender, if an employee isn't a minister.

James is now married to the father of her child, and the baby is due in June. "A child is a blessing," James said, "and our No. 1 goal is to start our child's life off in a positive light."



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