LAWRENCE — Sean Houlihan and Natalie Ferland, who were fired from Lawrence Catholic Academy after revealing they were having a child before getting married, have retained an attorney and are pursuing legal action against the school.
Attorney Anthony DiFruscia of Lawrence said his first step is requesting their personnel files from the school. “Then we will be pursuing possible wrongful termination action,” DiFruscia said.
Houlihan, 34, and Ferland, 26, were fired on Nov. 25 after revealing their relationship and pregnancy. Ferland is due in June. The couple have previously said they do not want their jobs back at the Parker Street school. However, they do want the terminations on their records changed to resignations so they can find other jobs in education, they said.
School Principal Jorge Hernandez issued both teachers termination letters, saying they were fired for violating their contracts with Lawrence Catholic Academy.
Hernadez and the Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish, have declined to comment publicly on the firings. Citing employee confidentiality, the Archdiocese of Boston, which oversees Lawrence Catholic Academy and St. Patrick’s, has declined to directly comment on the terminations. The Archdiocese did release a statement saying Lawrence Catholic Academy teachers sign an agreement saying they will “adhere to the teachings and principles of the Catholic Church, among other criteria essential for employment.”
While the school claims to have fired Houlihan and Ferland for good cause, DiFruscia questions whether it’s “legal cause,” he said. DiFruscia offered to represent the couple at no cost after reading an Eagle-Tribune story Sunday about the couple.
Both teachers have master’s degrees. Houlihan earned $40,000 annually in his fourth year teaching there. Ferland, in her second year at the school, earned $35,000. The school stopped paying for their health and dental benefits five days after they were fired.
Michael Coyne, an associate dean at the Massachusetts School of Law, said the Catholic Church’s policy on teachers “has become a pretty significant issue for the church.”
“This is their party line ... The fact is, most employees can be fired for no cause as long as it’s not in a discriminatory nature,” Coyne said.
Other Catholic schools have experienced similar problems and decided they did not want teachers “in an unmarried state exposed to their students,” he said.
Conversely, Coyne acknowledged there are federal and state laws “designed to protect families and pregnant workers.”
He likened the language in a Catholic contract teachers might sign to “morals clauses” in a professional athlete’s or chief executive officer’s contract. “My guess is they feel very strongly you must lead by example ... They see this as an important issue of modeling behavior,” he said.
Coyne noted the firings “come off as incredibly hard and callous” in juxtaposition with a couple in love and who intend to get married and raise a child “conceived in love.” He additionally noted they were terminated during the Christian holiday season.
Still, the Catholic church is essentially saying “We just don’t want them standing in front of a classroom telling kids how they should behave,” Coyne said. “Hopefully reasonable heads will prevail. It doesn’t make any sense to turn this into a decades-long battle.”
In June, a teacher who previously worked at a Catholic school in Ohio won a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Christa Dias was fired in October 2010 after revealing she was pregnant and unmarried.
Dias, who is gay, became pregnant by artificial insemination — which the church considers immoral and a violation of church doctrine. The church argued her contract required her to comply with the philosophies and teachings of the Catholic church, according to news reports.
A federal jury said the archdiocese violated anti-discrimination laws, according to reports.
In Fort Wayne, Ind., a Catholic school teacher also sued the archdiocese there after she was fired after undergoing invitro fertilization to get pregnant. She was told by a Bishop IVF is “an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it,” according to news reports.
Emily Herx filed a federal lawsuit, claiming her termination violated federal laws barring sexual discrimination, discrimination against women and those with disabilities. Her case is pending.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.