NEW YORK — Soon after she passed the first trimester of her pregnancy, Michelle McCusker told her employers that she was expecting. The 26-year-old Catholic-school teacher also mentioned that she did not plan to marry the child's father.
The principal "made it seem like it was fine," McCusker said. But two days later, she was fired. Officials said that she had signed a contract to uphold core teachings of the Catholic faith and that her behavior had violated that agreement.
At first, McCusker cried. Then she got angry. This week, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on her behalf, charging that the Brooklyn Archdiocese, which runs St. Rose of Lima school in Rockaway Beach, had violated a federal law banning discrimination against pregnant women.
"The school singled her out because she was pregnant, and the only way they could do that was because she was a woman," said Cassandra Stubbs, an NYCLU attorney. "How do they determine if male employees engage in premarital sex?"
It could be months before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission renders a decision in the case, which has drawn a flurry of media attention. In the meantime, the conflict has sparked a debate over the constitutional rights of a pregnant woman versus the rights of a religious institution to observe and enforce moral standards in the workplace.
McCusker, who appeared at a Manhattan news conference with her parents, has refused to identify the father, saying only that he did not want to be involved in the birth and raising of her child. But she did describe the genesis of the case, and her feelings about her treatment by the archdiocese.
"I don't understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life could terminate me because I'm pregnant and am choosing to have this baby," said McCusker, who was fired last month. "I held the Catholic religion to a higher standard."
The issue might have gone away, she said, if she had ended the pregnancy, which would have violated another tenet of the Catholic faith.
"They wouldn't have known," she said. "I have been devastated by this entire incident.... This was my first teaching position, and I was excited. I was looking forward to the school year with my young students."
McCusker had been teaching pre-kindergarten at St. Rose of Lima. After losing her $30,000-a-year job, she began working as a substitute teacher in New York City public schools. She is living with her parents on Long Island and has declined to comment further.
The Brooklyn Archdiocese issued a brief statement this week, saying: "This is a difficult situation for every person involved, but the school had no choice but to follow the principles contained in the teachers' personnel handbook."
The handbook states that "a teacher is required to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition."
The archdiocese's right to teach these values in its schools, and to expect teachers to uphold them in their personal lives, is inviolate, said Kiera McCaffrey, communications director for the Catholic League, a national group.
"This issue won't stand up in court because it's a private matter involving a religious institution," McCaffrey said, adding that the New York Civil Liberties Union "thought they might be able to intimidate us with this kind of action, but that's not going to happen."
The argument that the church is discriminating against a pregnant women is "ridiculous," she said, "because of course men don't get pregnant."
"This is an argument they have with nature, not with the church," she said of the NYCLU.
If a male teacher at a Catholic school was found to have impregnated a woman he was not married to, McCaffrey said, the same code would apply.
The key issue in McCusker's case, McCaffrey said, is that Catholic-school teachers don't simply teach subjects like math and history. They are also expected to teach morals and must lead by example.
"It's not like we're saying that she is a sinner and can't be a role model," McCaffrey said. "But there's a visible sign. She's pregnant. To have children looking at that, and say it's OK, is not the example the church wants to set."
McCusker's supporters, however, assert that the church is being hypocritical.
"Had she been a student in a Catholic institution, and a pregnant single woman, church authorities would have counseled her -- indeed, may have even pressured her -- to continue her pregnancy," Eileen Moran, a member of Catholics for a Free Choice, said at the news conference. "Yet, as her employer, in spite of all the official pronouncements of being pro-child, pro-parent and pro-family, St. Rose fired her."
Although there are relatively few cases involving the church and pregnancy discrimination, NYCLU attorneys said they believed they had legal precedent on their side.
In 2003, the organization filed a complaint on behalf of the unmarried director of an after-school program for Catholic Charities of Buffalo, N.Y. She was demoted and no longer allowed to work with students after officials learned she was pregnant.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled for the woman, and the charity agreed not to transfer or discriminate against women based on their pregnancy, Stubbs said.
The irony of McCusker's case, the lawyer said, is that St. Rose of Lima praised her teaching abilities in the Oct. 11 letter they sent terminating her.
"I wish there could have been a better solution," Principal Theresa Andersen wrote. "Your teaching ability and love of your children was of a high degree of professionalism."