Premarital sex is not protected activity under Title VII. But it can lead to pregnancy, which is a protected status under Title VII. Which raises the question: can an employer use an employee’s pregnancy as evidence of premarital sex, and terminate her employment because the employer has a moral objection to premarital sex?
The answer is yes. But as the Eleventh Circuit’s recent decision in Hamilton v. Southland Christian School illustrates, the court will closely scrutinize the employer’s motivations if the employee alleges pregnancy discrimination.
The Eleventh Circuit summarized the facts of the case as follows:
In January 2008, Jarretta Hamilton began teaching at Southland Christian School. Sometime in January 2009, she and her then-fiancé conceived a child. They got married the next month. On Sunday, April 5, 2009, Hamilton met with John and Julie Ennis, Southland’s administrator and assistant administrator, to tell them that she was pregnant and to ask for maternity leave during the next school year. During that meeting, she admitted that she had conceived the child before getting married. Southland fired Hamilton the following Thursday, purportedly because she had sinned by engaging in premarital sex and, as John Ennis put it, “there are consequences for disobeying the word of God.”
Hamilton sued the school alleging pregnancy discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to the school on the grounds that Hamilton had not produced evidence of a non-pregnant comparator who was treated differently. But on appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court’s ruling. The court noted that a plaintiff in a Title VII case does not have to show a comparator if there is enough other circumstantial evidence to raise a reasonable inference of discrimination.
In this case, such evidence existed. “Hamilton presented evidence,” wrote the court, “that, in making the decision to fire her, Southland was more concerned about her pregnancy and her request to take maternity leave than about her admission that she had premarital sex.” Therefore, the court remanded the case to the district court, where it will either be settled or proceed to trial.
For employers, the Hamilton decision should serve as a reminder to proceed carefully when proceeding with a termination of a pregnant or other “high-risk” employee. If an employer cannot demonstrate that only legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons motivated its termination decision, reconsideration of that decision may be in order.