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Catholic Teacher Fired Over Cancer Treatment Can Sue

Federal appeals court overturns initial ruling against her
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 18, 2018 3:45 PM CST
Stock photo.   (Getty Images / Michal Chodyra)

(Newser) – Kristen Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014—and when she told her employer she would need time off for surgery and chemotherapy, she was dealt a second blow. St. James Catholic School in Torrance, Calif., declined to renew her contract to teach for the next academic year. She sued for discrimination, but last year, a federal judge dismissed the suit, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. On Monday, a federal appeals court reinstated it. The initial ruling against Biel cited the "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws, Education Week reports, concluding that she actually worked as a minister, not a teacher, and as such the school was allowed to fire her. But the appeals court ruled that the fact Biel taught her fifth-grade students religion curriculum along with the rest of their academic subjects, at a religious school, does not make her a minister, USA Today reports.

Biel was hired by the Roman Catholic parish school within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2013 as a substitute teacher, and was promoted to a full-time teacher a few months later. In November 2013 she received a positive evaluation from the principal, but less than six months later, when she was fired, the principal said her "classroom management" was "not strict." The principal also said "it was not fair ... to have two teachers for the children during the school year." The constitution's religious freedom guarantee gives religious organizations the right to choose their faith leaders, but the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals said in its 2-1 decision that religious organizations do not have carte blanche to disregard the Americans With Disabilities Act when it comes to employees who are not faith leaders. Biel's lawyer says she is still fighting cancer. (This teacher says she was fired for getting married.)

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