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Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese denies teacher's discrimination allegations

Woman sues after being fired for undergoing in vitro fertilization

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 - 6:45 pm

The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend released a statement Wednesday asserting its right as a religious employer “to make religious based decisions consistent with its religious standards on an impartial basis” in light of a discrimination lawsuit filed against the diocese by a former teacher.

Emily Herx had taught literature and language arts at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School since 2003. She alleges the diocese discriminated against her and violated her civil rights when she was fired because of her decision to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF), according to the lawsuit filed in federal court April 19.

According to its statement, the diocese is “saddened” by the lawsuit and denies any discrimination occurred. It also “does not intend to comment on the specific allegations raised in the lawsuit that was filed against it.”

Herx filed a complaint in October and November 2011 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title I of the American Disabilities Act against both the diocese and the school, respectively.

After an investigation, the EEOC issued a determination in Herx's favor in January 2012 and a right to sue in February.

In April 2011, Herx was notified by the school that her contract would not be renewed for the following school year, but she was allowed to finish out the rest of the 2010-2011 school year. The diocese cited “improprieties related to church teachings or law” as the reason for not renewing Herx's contract.

According to the lawsuit, Herx had always been up-front and honest with the school's principal, Sandra Guffey, about her procedures. Herx suffers from a diagnosed medical condition that causes infertility. In 2008, Herx informed Guffey that she and her husband were considering fertility treatment, to which Guffey replied, “You are in my prayers,” according to the lawsuit.

Infertility is considered a disability under the American Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit.

In 2010, Herx asked to schedule sick days to undergo her first round of IVF.

“At no point throughout the couple's first round of IVF did Guffey object, alert Herx to any Catholic teachings or doctrine that might be implicated, or take any disciplinary action against Herx,” according to the lawsuit.

It wasn't until a year later when Herx requested sick days for her second round of IVF that Guffey asked Herx to meet with St. Vincent de Paul church leader Rev. John Kuzmich.

Kuzmich told Herx that another teacher had complained about her undergoing IVF.

He told Herx he feared if word spread about her IVF treatments, a “scandal” would ensue. At this meeting, Herx asked if her job was in jeopardy, to which Kuzmich responded that he “had to do more research and discuss the situation with others as he did not know much about this.”

After being notified the diocese would not renew her contract, Herx asked to meet with Guffey and Beth Kleber, the school's assistant principal, along with Herx's father, who is an attorney, and requested that the school reconsider her employment.

Her request was denied. Herx than made the same request to Kuzmich, who told her she was a “grave, immoral sinner” and reiterated that the situation would cause a “scandal” if anyone found out a teacher at St. Vincent had undergone IVF.

In this meeting, Kuzmich confirmed that Herx's firing had nothing to do with her performance as a teacher, as she was an excellent teacher, according to the lawsuit.

Bishop Rhoades also denied Herx's request to reconsider her contract renewal, stating that “IVF is an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it.” An appeal to the bishop was the final step in the process for Herx.

Herx alleges in the lawsuit that she was treated differently than other school employees such as Guffey, who is divorced, and other male teachers who have used contraceptives and received medical treatments, including vasectomies.

The diocese's self-funded health insurance plan also covered Herx's visits to the fertility doctor and anesthesia services associated with IVF procedures, according to the lawsuit.

Herx, who received a bachelor's degree from Ball State University and holds a teaching license from Taylor University, was never required to take a religion class or to complete any training or education in the Catholic faith as a condition of employment, according to the lawsuit.

But in its statement, the diocese said it “has clear policies requiring that teachers in its schools must, as a condition of employment, have knowledge of and respect for the Catholic faith and abide by the tenets of the Catholic Church.”

Herx is requesting compensatory damages, damages for mental anguish and emotional distress, punitive damages and payment of all costs associated with litigation.

Included in the diocese's statement was the Catholic Church's stance on IVF: "The Church promotes treatment of infertility through means that respect the right to life, the unity of marriage and procreation brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act."

The statement cited IVF as a process that goes against the Catholic teaching that every embryo has the right to life. "The process of IVF very frequently involves the deliberate destruction of embryos or the freezing of embryos, which the church holds to be incompatible with the respects owed to human life."

According to the lawsuit, Herx told Guffey and Kuzmich in their initial meetings that during the actual course of her medical treatment, neither Herx nor her doctor destroyed a single embryo.

The statement continues to say that it is morally unacceptable to separate procreation from the conjugal act, insisting procreation not be reduced simply to reproduction.