In November in Poland the story of a dismissed Religious Studies teacher hit the news. What made this story of interest?   

The Polish State requires schools to run Religious Studies (RS) classes. The teaching syllabus and text books are decided by the Church authorities and RS teachers must be issued a license (missio canonica) by the relevant Bishop. Withdrawal of that licence means loss of the right to teach RS. Further, the Poland-Vatican Concordat specifies that as regards teaching content and religious education RS teachers are subjected to the Church’s rules and regulations, while in all other matters they are subjected to the general law.  It is this division, or rather the consequences of it, which have caused a stir in Polish media, throwing sex discrimination and religious ordinances into direct conflict with each other.   

The employee and mother of two was a primary school RS teacher.  The school employed her, as any other teacher, based on the qualifications she presented (in this case the missio canonica).  It was not a “faith” school.   

The teacher was then reported by the newspapers to have got divorced and to be living with a partner to whom she was not married. She became pregnant by the partner but continued working in the school. After some time that came to be perceived as against the principles of the Catholic religion and as not setting a good example to pupils and their parents.  The Church alleged that parents (and others) were “appalled” by such conduct. For that reason the Church decided to withdraw her teaching licence.    

And this is where the one of the many problems in this case started. As she had lost the qualifications necessary to perform her job, the teacher was dismissed by the school during her pregnancy. Dismissal of a pregnant woman is not generally permissible under Polish law and this rule applies to teachers as well. However, the Teachers’ Act (the legislation regulating the rights and obligations of teachers) specifies that withdrawal of an RS teaching licence constitutes grounds for the dismissal of a teacher at the end of the month when the licence is lost, and the school relied on that.   

Did the employee know the teachings of Catholicism? Yes. Did she walk the talk? Strictly, no. Was she aware of the possible consequences of breaching the “rules”? Most likely, yes. Had she anticipated such a decision? Not really.  Is it right legally or morally that she would lose her job because she became pregnant out of wedlock?  There is the real debate.  

Interestingly enough, the Church (as the Polish media like to think, under their pressure) decided to offer her another job as a school counselor in their Catholic Education Center until the delivery date so that she could still get all the social security benefits related to the pregnancy and maternity. And here surprisingly it seems her pregnancy will not be disturbing, despite that role still involving dealing with pupils in relation to their education.  Whether this is the product of belated embarrassment, worthy charity or rank hypocrisy also remains open for argument.  After all, the role of the RS teacher is to educate children about religion, not to preach it – that is up to the relevant church or synagogue or mosque, etc.  You can’t teach maths if you are not numerate, but you do not need to live the principles of Catholicism (or any other religion) in order to teach them, surely?   

There are certainly other questions one may ask. Who terminated her employment actually? Where does any legal liability lie? Which values should take precedence? Should the Church be influenced by the realities of 21st century life in Poland in its decisions on the licence of an RS teacher on the grounds of her unmarried pregnancy?  Even if there was public resistance to her staying in her job, is that a good reason to withdraw her livelihood?  Could or should the employer – the school – have declined to apply the Teacher’s Act where the teacher’s pregnancy (albeit outside marriage) is the direct cause of the loss of her licence to teach?    

There are, as I say, only limited instances when a pregnant woman may legally be dismissed.  Whether this is one of them remains to be seen, as the employee has filed an unfair dismissal case with the Employment Tribunal and is saying that she is not going to withdraw it despite the alternative employment offer she received.  If this case gets as far as the Tribunal (our bet is a settlement and robust confidentiality wording), it will pose some new and challenging questions for the Poland-Vatican Concordat – in particular, is it right that treatment which would be blatantly unfair and discriminatory at the hands of any other employer is legitimised because it is the Catholic Church which is making the decisions?