Crisitello v. St. Theresa School
New Jersey is home to religious schools of many persuasions, reflecting the religious diversity of the state. These schools typically ask their teachers to follow a code of conduct to uphold the schools’ religious beliefs and practices. Among those schools is St. Theresa School, a Catholic school that did not offer a new contract to a former teacher after she admitted that she violated both her previous contract and Catholic teaching. Becket intervened in the case on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, one of the nation’s leading Orthodox Jewish umbrella organizations, to explain the crucial importance of religious autonomy to New Jersey’s many Orthodox Jewish schools.
Share this Case
Religious education in New Jersey
Religious schools are common in New Jersey, and reflect the wide diversity of the state, including Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Adventist schools, among many others. These schools strive to provide a top-notch education for children, including in matters of faith. To ensure that their religious ministry remains strong, religious schools in New Jersey often request that their staff respect and promote their faith’s teachings by following a personal code of conduct.
A challenge to St. Theresa School’s educational ministry
One such school is St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Kenilworth, New Jersey, that is a ministry of the Archdiocese of Newark headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Like all other schools in the Archdiocese St. Theresa requires all its staff to respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all staff must sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.
During the 2013 school year, a teacher named Victoria Crisitello voluntarily told St. Theresa that she was in violation of her contract and Church teaching. As a result, St. Theresa decided not to offer a new contract for the following school year. Soon after, Crisitello sued the school, alleging discrimination. Nine years of litigation ensued, culminating in an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court that was heard in April 2023.
The law protects the ability of religious schools to follow their faith
Religious institutions, especially religious schools that exist to instill religious beliefs, values, and conduct in their students, must have the ability to require that their employees conduct themselves in ways that uphold and advance their beliefs. That is especially so for Orthodox Jewish schools, which are crucial to the continuing existence of Orthodox Judaism. In its brief for Agudath Israel of America and at oral argument at the New Jersey Supreme Court, Becket has argued that the doctrine of church autonomy—which provides religious groups the power to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance—protects religious schools, including especially Orthodox Jewish schools, in making such decisions. Requiring a religious school of any faith to keep a teacher on staff who publicly violates religious teaching would undermine its ability to carry out its mission of educating future generations in the faith.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.