After eight hours of deliberation on Wednesday, a Jackson County jury ruled in favor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in the case of a Catholic grade school teacher who had claimed she was terminated because she was pregnant, unwed and refused to have an abortion.
The diocese said she was let go because of poor performance.
After the verdict, E. E. Keenan, the attorney representing teacher Michelle Bolen, said a juror told him that had he been able to prove that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant, he might have fared better.
But “Missouri pregnancy law exempts churches,” Keenan said. “We could not sue them for pregnancy discrimination. We were severely limited in what legal claims we were able to present. We could only present a few other limited claims that were supported by the facts but harder to prove.
“This verdict is not an endorsement of what the diocese did and not a criticism of Michelle, just that there is a huge gap in Missouri law as it pertains to workers in religious-based schools in Missouri.”
Representatives for the diocese said they would comment on the case Thursday.
Bolen had sued the diocese, as well as Carol Lenz, the former principal at St. Therese School in Kansas City, North, and the Rev. Joseph Cisetti, the priest at the school and parish. During the trial, Bolen testified that Cisetti told her that had she terminated her pregnancy, the school would not have to deal with the “scandal” of a pregnant, unmarried teacher. Soon after, her contract was not renewed.
The case hinged, in large part, on whether by not renewing the teacher’s contract the diocese violated the 1986 Missouri Abortion Act, which protects women from being fired for refusing to have an abortion.
Attorneys said that as far as any of them knew this was the first time the law had been litigated.
As the trial went on for more than three weeks, lawyers representing the diocese argued that Bolen’s contract as a first-grade teacher at St. Therese, where she had taught for 14 years, was not renewed for reasons unrelated to her pregnancy but rather because of her performance.
Attorney Joseph Hatley argued that Bolen never had to refuse to have an abortion because she was never asked to terminate her pregnancy.
Witnesses testified that Bolen had been tardy to class several times and had left her students alone for a couple of minutes after asking another teacher a few doors down to keep watch. Others testified that Bolen had been warned more than once about not adhering to the school dress code.
Bolen had received positive performance reports every year she’d worked there until after she told Cisetti about her pregnancy. And while the school subsequently put Bolen on a performance review plan, poor performance was not listed among the reasons in the letter notifying her the contract would not be renewed. She was let go just days after reporting that her older, school-age child and a classmate felt uncomfortable when a teacher massaged their shoulders. Her contract officially ended on July 31, 2015.
The lawsuit, filed three years ago, said that when Bolen found out she was pregnant she went with her fiance at the time to meet with Cisetti, who, as the pastor at St. Therese, was also her parish priest.
The suit says that Cisetti told Bolen she had made the “right choice in terms of keeping the baby, but that she had violated the terms of her school contract by being pregnant while not being married.”
The suit says he told Bolen she could not “return to sender,” but if she had, “they would not have been there that day having the discussion about her pregnancy and its repercussions.”
In court, Cisetti said he wanted to offer Bolen a contract. He said that he praised her for not terminating her pregnancy. He said he’s a pro-life advocate who has given speeches and written letters to newspapers about the issue, and went on to say that as the school’s pastor, he was concerned that dismissing a pregnant, unwed mother might create an environment that would be conducive to abortion.
“There is a possibility that someone else might be in the same situation and think, ‘Oh my God, I am pregnant. I will have to get an abortion if I want to keep my job,’” Cisetti said.
On Tuesday, before closing arguments came from both sides, Bolen’s attorneys grabbed her hands, formed a circle and prayed.
“For justice and righteousness,” Keenan whispered as the group stood in the middle of the courtroom.
On Wednesday night, Keenan would not say whether his client intended to appeal the ruling. “We are evaluating our next step.”