A Missouri teacher claims she was harassed and ultimately fired from her old job at a Roman Catholic elementary school for being pregnant and unmarried.
Michelle Bolen alleges that when she informed a priest at St. Therese Catholic School in Kansas City that she was pregnant, he expressed concern about the public “scandal” it would cause the school to have an unwed mother on staff.
Months later, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph refused to renew Bolen’s employment contract ― even though she had worked at the school for nearly 15 years without a problem, according to her lawsuit.
Bolen is now suing the diocese and St. Therese Catholic School’s former principal.
Diocese spokesperson Jack Smith told The Kansas City Star that the claims Bolen makes in her lawsuit are “completely spurious.” Smith said the teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed “for reasons that have nothing to do with her pregnancy.”
The diocese has tried to have the lawsuit dismissed after it was first filed in 2016, according to The Kansas City Star ― arguing that, as a religious institution protected by the First Amendment, it can’t be sued for its employment decisions.
But Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Charles McKenzie has agreed to let the case proceed to a jury trial. The trial is scheduled to start next Monday, according to court records.
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Longstanding Catholic doctrine forbids premarital sex. The church is also adamantly opposed to birth control and abortion.
When Bolen approached Rev. Joseph Cisetti, a pastor with oversight over St. Therese Catholic School, with news of her pregnancy, the priest allegedly said that she’d made the right choice in “keeping the baby,” but that the decision also violated the terms of her employment contract. The priest implied that if she had gotten an abortion, they wouldn’t have had to discuss her pregnancy and its repercussions, the lawsuit alleges.
In March 2015, the priest instructed Bolen to wear loose clothing to conceal her pregnancy, the lawsuit states. The priest and the school’s former principal, Carol Lenz, later sent an “invasive, humiliating, public letter” to the entire school staff about Bolen’s pregnancy, against her wishes. The letter allegedly referred to the pregnancy as “less than ideal” and informed staff that she was not married to the child’s father.
The diocese informed Bolen in May 2015 that her contract wouldn’t be renewed for the next year. She was a first-grade teacher at the time.
The lawsuit claims the diocese was more concerned with “keeping up appearances” than with following Catholic moral teachings.
“Even if the Diocese does not actually intend to encourage abortions, its policy and practice of disciplining and terminating unwed mothers has the effect of punishing women who carry their children to term instead of participating in abortion,” the lawsuit states.
Bolen’s lawsuit seeks monetary compensation to be determined by a jury, including unpaid wages and attorney’s fees. She’s since found a job at another school in the Kansas City area.
In a statement on St. Therese’s website, Cisetti insisted that the school and associated parish does not discriminate against pregnant women.
“I trust that those who know me also know of my commitment to the dignity of human life, born and unborn,” he wrote. “Wisdom, charity and prudence require both sides of a story being heard before a decision is made.”