She couldn’t stop the tears when she realized 500 kids got together to sing a song just for her.
Humankind, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — A fifth-grade teacher can now sue a Catholic school for firing her because she sought time off for breast cancer treatment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday in San Francisco.
The initial ruling against the teacher, in early 2017, concluded that the school could fire Kristen Biel because she worked as a minister, meaning the Constitution would prevent her from suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Teaching the religious part of her curriculum did not make Biel a minister, the court decided 2-1, saying religious organizations do not have free rein to disregard anti-discrimination employment laws when dismissing workers who are not faith leaders.
St. James Catholic School in Torrance, a Roman Catholic parish school within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, hired Biel as a substitute teacher in 2013 and made her the full-time teacher for fifth grade a few months later.
The principal gave Biel a positive teaching evaluation in November 2013, praising how she accommodated learning styles and created a safe and caring learning environment. Less than six months later, she told the school she was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy.
Saying “it was not fair … to have two teachers for the children during the school year,” the principal told Biel a few weeks later that she would not renew Biel’s contract for the next academic year. Biel’s “classroom management,” the principal added despite the recent evaluation, was “not strict,” according to the majority opinion.
Biel taught the St. James fifth graders all of their academic subjects, including a standard religion curriculum for about 30 minutes a day, four days a week. Although she participated in prayers twice a day, her student prayer leaders led them. At the school-wide monthly mass she attended, her only duty was to keep her class quiet and orderly, according to court documents.
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