Catholic school teacher sues diocese for wrongful termination after IVF treatments

IVF treatments are known to be very costly, but schoolteacher Emily Herx didn’t count on being fired as an added financial burden because of them.

Emily Herx had taught language and literature at St. Vincent de Paul school in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend for seven years. The mother of one is now suing both the school and the diocese for wrongful termination after she disclosed that she was undergoing IVF.

Herx says the firing came completely out of the blue. “For two years my supervisor has known about it and said she was praying for us,” Herx told Ann Curry on the TODAY show. “So there was no warning. There was nothing. So in my heart I had support and I was being honest about it.”

The school, on the other hand, defends its action, saying that it “has clear policies requiring that teachers in its schools must, as a condition of employment, have a knowledge and respect for the Catholic faith and abide by the tenets of the Catholic Church.”

The Catholic Church has long held that IVF treatments are a sin because the technology involves the freezing and destruction of human embryos. Furthermore, technology used to generate human embryos is used for stem cell research, another big no-no in the Catholic Church.

Herx’s lawsuit does say that the bishop of the diocese told her in point of fact that IVF “is an intrinsic evil, which means no circumstances can justify it.” She has also named her pastor in the lawsuit, and quotes him as saying that she was a “grave, immoral sinner” for pursuing IVF.

All of which only confirms that Catholic authorities are united and unequivocal on the issue. As to whether this is a winnable court case is an open and interesting question. The church sees it as a test of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, says it’s a complex legal case.

“There are no parts here that are just ordinary legal business,” Case said. “There are people with very strong stakes – personal, ideological, religious.”

The Supreme Court has ruled in a church’s favor on a similar case in the past, so the Herxes will be going against a precedent. That case, however, involved a professional minister and the ruling was based on a so-called “ministerial exception,” allowing religious organizations extra leeway when it comes to firing employees for behaviors they consider unsuitable.

Emily Herx, however, is not a trained religious professional and a religious education or training was not a prerequisite of her employment.

“We don’t believe that Emily fits within the “ministerial exception,” and her facts are distinguishable from that case,” said attorney Kathleen Delaney. “The teacher in the other case was a Lutheran minister. She had a title of a minister. She taught religion courses and she had to go through religious training and education as a condition of her employment. None of these facts are present in Emily’s case.”

The diocese stood its ground and said in its statement that “The Diocese views the core issue raised in this lawsuit as a challenge to the Diocese's right, as a religious employer, to make religious based decisions consistent with its religious standards on an impartial basis.”

For the record, the diocese reiterated that it supports infertility treatments for its employees, just not in vitro fertilization, which the church believes contradicts its right-to-life beliefs.

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