A federal judge has ruled that administrators at a small evangelical Christian college in Oregon illegally discriminated against a former professor when they fired her because she got pregnant out of wedlock and then refused an ultimatum to either marry her boyfriend or leave him.
The professor who lost her job is Coty Richardson. Before she was fired, Richardson had been an assistant professor of exercise science at Northwest Christian University, a private, 700-student school in Eugene.
“This is the unusual employment discrimination case in which the facts are largely undisputed,” Judge Ann Aiken wrote in her 33-page opinion and order.
“[A]t its heart, this lawsuit is about what happens when an employment policy based on an employer’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with an employee’s rights under federal and state discrimination laws,” the judge also wrote.
Richardson, now 37, informed officials at Northwest Christian of her pregnancy in the spring of 2015.
School officials told her she had to marry the father right away or else dump the unborn child’s father and declare the pregnancy an error, the lawsuit contends.
Richardson, already a mother of two, and the unidentified boyfriend had been together for 12 years at the time, the suit says.
She chose neither alternative offered by school officials, she said. Instead, she asked for personal privacy.
And thus, in late July 2015, Northwest Christian administrators fired Richardson via a letter from Dennis Lindsay, the vice president for academic affairs. According to the lawsuit, the letter stated that “sexual relations outside of marriage is contrary to the university’s core values.”
In a previous missive, Lindsay explained that “having a child out of wedlock while still continuing a relationship with the father” sets “a bad example” for the fully grown, adult students who attend Northwest Christian.
When she filed her lawsuit, Richardson alleged that Northwest Christian has not fired male employees who have fathered children out of wedlock, according to Courthouse News Service.
The summary judgment in Richardson’s favor on the marital status discrimination claim rejects Northwest Christian’s claim that the school is immune to employment discrimination claims. In a nutshell, the court ruled, Northwest Christian cannot discriminate any more than any other institution unless the hiring and firing is specifically related to ministers.
“First, plaintiff’s title, assistant professor of exercise science, was secular,” Judge Aiken decreed “Second, plaintiff did not undergo any specialized religious training before assuming her position. Third, although there is ample evidence plaintiff held herself out as a Christian, there is no evidence she held herself out as a minister.”
Richardson “was expected to integrate her Christianity into her teaching and demonstrate a maturing Christian faith,” Aiken noted. “But any religious function was wholly secondary to her secular role.”
The judge ruled that a jury will have to decide several of Richardson’s other claims against Northwest Christian. There will also be a trial over damages. Richardson originally sought $650,000 for lost wages and for suffering discrimination. (RELATED: Christian College Sued For $650,000 For Firing Unmarried Professor Who Got Pregnant)
Prior to getting sacked for getting pregnant, Richardson had taught biomechanics, human kinetics, nutrition and other exercise science courses. She had been on the faculty since 2011.
The ex-professor holds a master’s degree from A.T. Still University, an osteopathic medical school in Missouri, and a bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University.
After administrators at Northwest Christian fired Richardson, she had difficulty finding work commensurate with her education.
Daniel Kalish, Richardson’s attorney, told The Daily Caller that Richardson currently works part-time at a 24 Hour Fitness.
Northwest Christian University president Joseph Womack told Inside Higher Ed that the school does not yet have a public comment concerning the summary judgment decision.
Kalish, Richardson’s lawyer, suggested to Inside Higher Ed that the judge’s ruling means that religious schools “don’t get a free pass” to engage in employment discrimination.
According to the Northwest Christian student handbook, “the university expects that non-married students will not engage in sexual intercourse.” Spending the night in a dorm room inhabited by a member of the opposite sex is not allowed.
Additionally, alcohol and tobacco are forbidden on campus. “Mooning, ‘streaking’ and public urination” are verboten. “Prolonged displays of physical affection” are “not considered appropriate.” And absolute no pornography of any kind.
The law firm representing Richardson has created a petition asking Northwest Christian University to reinstate Richardson as a professor.
“Tell NCU it’s NOT OK to fire a woman for being pregnant!” the petition says.