Religious Schools In New Jersey Triumph Over Government Overreach

In a pivotal decision that resonates with the inherent rights of religious institutions, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday that religious schools enjoy the constitutional right to require their staff to maintain faith-based principles. This outcome underlines the vital separation of church and state, championing the rights of religious institutions to remain unburdened by external political pressure.

The controversy surrounding this case centers on former teacher Victoria Crisitello and the St. Theresa School, a Catholic institution that’s part of the Archdiocese of Newark. The institution has a legacy that spans over sixty years. Since the late 1970s, it has been managed by Salesian Sisters, dedicated to delivering faith-centric education based on St. John Bosco’s teachings.

Crisitello’s professional relationship with St. Theresa School became strained when she revealed she was expecting a child outside the sanctity of marriage. This disclosure violated the school’s “Code of Professional and Ministerial Conduct.” It clashed with the Catholic doctrine she had agreed to uphold. Given the apparent breach of her contract’s terms, the school opted not to renew it.

While Crisitello filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming discrimination, the court found that the crux of the matter wasn’t her pregnancy but her engagement in premarital relations, which directly conflicted with the Catholic faith’s teachings. The court’s statement underscores this, stating that the school “validly asserted the religious tenets exception,” and Crisitello failed to contest its applicability.

A trial court sided with St. Theresa in 2016, but this decision was overturned by the state appellate courts in 2020. This week’s ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court settles the dispute at the state level, emphasizing that religious institutions in New Jersey retain the right to determine who champions their faith and doctrines.

Highlighting the essence of this decision, Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, remarked, “The whole point of a religious school is to help parents educate their children in their faith. And to do that, schools must have teachers who believe in and follow their faith.” The public interest law firm had previously intervened in the case on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization. They emphasized the principle of church autonomy, which grants religious groups the final authority to dictate their internal matters of faith, doctrine and governance.

Rassbach further shed light on the significance of this ruling, especially for Orthodox Jews. He said, “This decision is a victory for all religious schools in the state of New Jersey, but it is especially important for Orthodox Jews.” He cited historical instances where government interference disrupted the operations of Jewish schools.

To the many institutions like St. Theresa School and the countless educators who stand by their faith, this is not just a legal triumph but a reaffirmation of their right to maintain the sanctity of their beliefs. It’s a testament to the endurance of faith in the face of adversity.