Teacher claims Facebook posts on abortion led to her firing from Catholic school

Updated: Jul. 10, 2019 at 6:09 AM EDT
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BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - A former Bishop England High School teacher filed a lawsuit against the school, its principal and others because she says she was wrongfully fired over social media posts.

Elizabeth Cox claims she was notified of her termination from her teaching position at Bishop England High School on June 7 by its principal, Patrick Finneran. In a letter, Finneran wrote the school had become aware that Cox has “a public Facebook account which identifies you as a teacher at our school and publicly supports abortion.”

“As you know, this is contrary to the mission of the Church and our school and is materially incompatible with your duties as a Catholic School teacher,” the letter states. “When we confronted you with the post, you admitted to it and, moreover, reacted in a manner leading us to conclude you would not do differently in the future.”

The letter states that parents send their students to the school “expressly because they want a Catholic teaching and upbringing,” adding that her “public expression of disagreement with Catholic values undermines that.”

The letter stated her termination was effective May 31 and rescinded an offer of a teaching contract for the next school year. Attached to the letter, Cox said, were examples of posts from her Facebook page.

In the lawsuit, Cox claims she fully performed all her duties and had accepted the contract for the 2019-2020 school year.

Cox’s lawsuit claims her Facebook posts do not violate any term of the contract and contain “political speech and/or free speech” and, as such, are protected by state law. The suit sites Section 16-17-560, which states it is unlawful for a person to assault or intimidate a citizen, discharge a citizen from employment or occupation … because of political opinions or the exercise of political rights and privileges guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution and laws of the United States or by the Constitution and laws of this state.”

The suit further alleges that by terminating her, the defendants committed a criminal offense.

One clause of her teaching contract, titled “Duties,” states, “Teacher understands that a fundamental mission of the School is the intellectual and spiritual development of students according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. In furtherance of that mission, all teachers and administrators employed by the School, regardless of whether they are members of the Catholic Church, are by virtue of such employment actively engaged in pastoral ministry and the formation of God’s people by personal witness. Therefore, Teacher acknowledges and agrees that he or she will at all times publicly speak and act in accordance with the mission and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth in Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

The contract also states that the teacher acknowledges that “complying with such requirement is a material condition of his or her employment by the School, is one of Teacher’s essential job functions and is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification, as defined and permitted by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Cox’s lawsuit includes examples of her Facebook posts she says were attached to her letter of termination.

One of the posts is a quote from Gloria Steinem that suggests that society should treat “every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion.” It goes on to suggest men wanting to purchase a gun should face “a mandatory 48-hour waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understand what he’s about to do” and suggests closing “all but one gun shop in every state” and making him “walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun.”

Cox's letter of termination included examples of Facebook posts the school claimed were in...
Cox's letter of termination included examples of Facebook posts the school claimed were in violation of her contract.

Another post began, “I’ll start believing you’re pro-life when you” and then lists eight bullet points that include “ban guns,” “have free healthcare for all,” “stop separating families at the border” and “offer cheap, prescribed birth control.”

Cox's letter of termination included examples of Facebook posts the school claimed were in...
Cox's letter of termination included examples of Facebook posts the school claimed were in violation of her contract.

A third example was a share of an article from The Washington Post with the headline, “Leslie Jones leads the charge against Alabama’s abortion ban in the SNL season finale,” but does not include any comment from Cox.

In addition to the school and its principal, the lawsuit names unknown defendants who were either members or directors of the school who were involved in the decision to fire Cox.

Cox is seeking actual and future damages, triple damages, lost wages, attorney fees and reinstatement.

The Diocese of Charleston released the following statement:

“Officials with the Catholic Diocese of Charleston and Bishop England High School have just received notice of the complaint that was filed yesterday. We will review and respond to it in due time.”

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