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May 12, 3:26 PM EDT

Church: Fired pregnant teacher can't sue for discrimination



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HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- A Montana Catholic schoolteacher fired for having a baby out of wedlock can't sue because she led her classes in prayer and participated in other religious activities that prevent her from filing a discrimination claim, attorneys for the school said.

Former Butte Central teacher Shaela Evenson is accusing the school and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena of pregnancy discrimination, sex discrimination and breach of contract. She was fired in January 2014 after diocese officials received an anonymous letter saying Evenson was unmarried and pregnant.

Attorneys for the school and diocese filed their response to the federal lawsuit on Monday. Evenson knowingly breached her employment contract by going against the religious and moral teachings of the Catholic church, they said.

They also are seeking to use a religious exemption in federal law that prohibits discrimination claims from being filed by ministerial employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the ministerial exception applies only to employees perform essentially religious functions.

"Namely those whose primary duties consist of engaging in church governance, supervising a religious order, or conducting religious ritual, worship or instruction," according to the EEOC website.

Evenson taught literature and physical education to middle-school students for nine years. But the exemption applies to her because she led her homeroom class in a daily prayer, accompanied her class to Mass, participated in faith activities and took religious education courses, according to court filings by the school and diocese.

Evenson's attorney, Brian Gallik, said Evenson was not a ministerial employee and declined further comment on the matter. Attorneys and a spokesman for the Helena diocese did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Amy Christensen, a Helena attorney who is not involved in the case but has previously litigated the religious exemption issue, said the diocese and school may have a hard time proving its claim.

"It's an issue that has been litigated up to the Supreme Court and it may be a tough argument to make if the employee didn't have any ministerial duties as a part of her job functions," Christensen said.

Evenson's firing came a month after a Catholic school in a Seattle suburb forced out a gay vice principal. Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish, Washington, said Mark Zmuda was aware of Catholic doctrine and violated his employment agreement.

Evenson became pregnant through artificial insemination and gave birth to a boy last year. It was the first child for Evenson and her partner, Marilyn Tobin.

Evenson's sexuality was not raised as an issue in her firing or by either side in the current legal dispute.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has set a trial for next April. Both sides have said in court filings that there is a good chance of settling the issue out of court, though no settlement talks have taken place.

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