Victoria Crisitello worked at a religious school, St. Theresa School, first as a teacher’s aide in the School’s toddler room and then as an art teacher for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In January 2014, the School’s principal approached Crisitello about teaching additional art classes, at which point Crisitello shared that she was pregnant and that, as such, she would like a pay increase to compensate her for the additional classes. The principal denied Crisitello’s request and, two weeks later, fired her because she was unmarried and pregnant.
In October 2014, Crisitello sued the School in state court, alleging that it had discriminated against her based on pregnancy and marital status, in violation of New Jersey law. Among other defenses, the School asserted that Crisitello was a minister—a vital preacher and teacher of the faith. A legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception” allows religious employers to avoid liability when they fire a minister. The trial court ruled that Crisitello was a minister and that her claims must therefore fail. But an appellate court reversed that decision, explaining that there was no evidence Crisitello performed any religious duties, let alone sufficient religious duties to be considered a minister.
The School appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Americans United, along with the National Women’s Law Center and many other religious and civil-rights organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of Crisitello. The brief argued that Crisitello was not a minister and that expanding the ministerial-exception doctrine to treat her as a minister would inflict grave harm on numerous employees of religious institutions.
On August 14, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the decision of the appellate court and reinstated the trial court’s decision to dismiss Crisitello’s complaint. In doing so, however, the court declined to expand the ministerial exception and instead grounded its ruling in an interpretation of state law.