Friday, December 02, 2005

A Question of Ethics

Now that the usual suspects have gone after the Catholic Church and the St. Rose of Lima School in Queens for the firing of an unmarried but pregnant preschool teacher, perhaps we can explore in a fair way the issues raised by this incident. This means being fair to the Church and not bringing in its obvious vulnerability on sexual abuse and other matters.

The question of whether the school or Michelle McCusker, the fired teacher, violated the contract they entered into when she was hired in September is not a civil rights issue. Whatever legal or administrative bodies will adjudicate her claim, the contract issue does not of itself raise any novel questions.

Nor need we dwell on the ridiculous claim advanced by the New York Civil Liberties Union which is representing McCusker that she is the victim of sexual discrimination since the Church does not equally take action against male employees who engage in premarital sex. Even with advances in biology and medical science, not all of them salutary, pregnancy remains a condition reserved for the females of our species. Inequity, such as it is, arises from this circumstance and no other. I trust that we can understand that there are laws and situations - abortion is a useful example - that apply to but one gender.

Our focus should be on the moral dimension, beginning with the question of whether an applicant for a teaching position who knows that she is pregnant, but this is not yet physically evident, is obliged to inform the school of her condition. This apparently is McCusker's situation. Even if we accept society's interest in promoting equal opportunity in the workplace for pregnant women, perhaps we should view schools in a different light regarding prospective teachers because the education of children is likely - probably certainly - to be disrupted when in the middle of the school year the teacher will be out for two or three months or longer on pregnancy and maternity leave. Isn't the school's legitimate interest in the education and welfare of children sufficiently compelling in such a situation, although pregnancy certainly would not be a legitimate cause for firing a veteran teacher? Accordingly, wasn't McCusker morally obligated to inform St. Rose of Lima that she was pregnant?

This issue, incidentally, is faced routinely by yeshivas and day schools, particularly the large number that recruit young Orthodox women, including the recently married. Some schools are reluctant and even refuse to hire such women. Whether such a policy is justified, I believe that an applicant who is pregnant is obligated to inform the school.

St. Rose of Lima acted, of course, on a separate ground. It did not want an unmarried pregnant woman on its faculty because, as its principal put it in a letter to McCusker, "a teacher can not violate the tenets of Catholic morality." It's this view that generates criticism of the school and the Church, including from Jews of a secular orientation, which is another way of saying the great majority of American Jews.

Two considerations should compel a reconsideration and result in the conclusion that the school is within its rights.

We incessantly trumpet church-state separation, the refrain being that the involvement of government in religion or religion in government is strongly to be avoided because the mix is dangerous. This is the basis of opposition to government aid to parochial schools, which in turn is the reason why St. Rose of Lima must charge tuition and raise funds to meet its budget. The flip side of separation is that government must not interfere in the affairs of religious institutions, except in the most extreme situations, as when a religious entity acts contrary to public safety and welfare. Else, church-state separation is a one-way street, entirely to the detriment of religion.

The Catholic Church has its beliefs about marriage and child-bearing and has the right to articulate these teachings as it staffs and operates its schools. In fact, the values promoted by the Church in the McCusker situation are in an important way echoed outside of the theological domain and they coincide with broad social goals. It does not take a prudish outlook to acknowledge that sexual activity among schoolchildren, including preteens, and teenage pregnancy are serious social concerns. There are publicly funded programs dealing with such matters.

While McCusker was a preschool teacher, the issues raised by her situation have applicability throughout the entire range of grades. What message would be sent to seventh and eighth graders if their unmarried teacher were pregnant? Would those who have rallied to McCusker take the same position? To put the question differently, how many parents of a liberal orientation would welcome their children being taught in a private or public school by someone who is pregnant but not married? Perhaps I am wrong, but my guess is that there would be strong parental opposition as concern for the children trumps concern for the possible rights of the teacher.

It is too early to know whether this case will go anywhere or whether Jewish organizations will take a position. If there are proceedings, hopefully Orthodox groups will support St. Rose of Lima's right to terminate Ms. McCusker. It is too much to expect that secular Jewish organizations will support the Church. The best we can hope for is that they stay away from the issue and thereby avoid adding to their already formidable record of opposition to religious values.