A jury in the Indiana U.S. District Court said December 19 that a Catholic diocese was not protected by federal law safeguarding religious employers when it declined to renew a teacher’s contract for violating the morals clause of her employment agreement.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend discriminated against Emily Herx in 2011 when it fired her for undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment, the court said, ordering the diocese to pay Herx $1.75 million in emotional and physical damages, $125,000 for medical expenses, $75,000 for lost wages and $1 in punitive damages, according to the website Crux.
Herx broke the terms of her employment agreement as a teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Fort Wayne when she had the in vitro fertilization treatment, since it is against Church teaching, which Catholic teachers in the diocese agree to uphold.
The Church says artificial insemination and fertilization are morally unacceptable, because they dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act, and the procedures treat children like a commodity, all contrary to the dignity of both the parents and their children. The Church has also raised concern over the fact that the procedure generally involves killing numerous embryos.
Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades responded to LifeSiteNews on the verdict, maintaining the importance of defending religious freedom.
“The diocese is disappointed with the outcome of the trial and is considering an appeal,” Bishop Rhoades told LifeSiteNews. “The diocese considers it important to defend its Constitutional and statutorily-granted freedom to make faith-based employment decisions without inappropriate interference.”
Herx alleged that her firing was a form of sexual discrimination and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her suit said since she was not an ordained minister or trained in the Catholic faith as a condition of employment, that the diocese and its school board didn’t have the protection of federal law upholding employment rights of religious organizations. She also stated in the suit that she suffers from a diagnosed condition that causes infertility, and that this is considered a disability under the law.
Also in the lawsuit, Herx is said to have appealed to Bishop Rhoades before bringing legal action, and the bishop had affirmed for her the Catholic teaching that IVF is “an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it.”
Herx’s attorneys argued that male teachers in the diocese alleged to have violated Catholic moral teaching had retained their jobs. The jury made up of five women and seven men deliberated for five-and-a-half hours after the four-day trial, according to the Journal-Gazette.
Herx had in vitro treatments twice in 2010, reportedly with the knowledge of her principal. When she notified the school of her plans to have in vitro fertilization again in 2011, word reached the pastor of the school’s parish, who subsequently directed staff not to renew Herx’s contract.
Bishop Rhoades testified in the trial that he wasn’t aware Herx’s principal, who is also Catholic, had known for more than a year that Herx was undergoing the infertility treatment and that he was unaware of emails between the principal and Herx about the treatment.
The bishop also said under cross examination that the diocese had net assets of about $30 million, according to the Journal Gazette, and that a legal win for Herx could affect portions of the diocese’s operation.
The priests and bishop continually spoke on the stand of having wanted to see Herx show remorse or regret for making the decision she made, which she never did.
Diocesan attorney John Theisen told the press after the decision was announced that the case was still a religious freedom issue, and that civil rights exemptions for religious employers should have ensured the diocese would prevail.
“It never should have brought the case to trial,” he said.