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Video: Teacher fired for 'fornication'

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    ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 8:10. Imagine getting fired from your job for being intimate with your husband-to-be. Well, that's what happened to this Florida teacher Jaretta Hamilton . We're going to be speaking to her and her husband exclusively in just a moment. But first, NBC 's Mike Taibbi has her story.

    MIKE TAIBBI reporting: It was a year ago April when fourth grade teacher Jaretta Hamilton applied for maternity leave from the private Southland Christian School in St. Cloud ,

    Florida. When asked when she'd become pregnant, she answered honestly: about three weeks before she and her husband, Sam , were married. A week later she was fired. And while the language in this school 's letter to her attorney was old-fashioned, the meaning was clear. " Jaretta was asked not to return because of a moral issue that was disregarded, namely fornication, sex outside of marriage." School principal John Ennis told a local reporter Hamilton 's honest answer did her in.

    Offscreen Voice: You do stand behind the fact that you believe the teacher committed an immoral act and that's why she was terminated.

    Mr. JOHN ENNIS: Of her own confession.

    Voice: Right.

    Mr. ENNIS: Of her own confession. Yes, sir. Thank you.

    Voice: OK, so you stand behind that action.

    Mr. ENNIS: Yeah, absolutely.

    TAIBBI: Other private religious schools have been sued with mixed results for firing teachers who became pregnant in ways that violated religious teachings; those lawsuits filed under federal laws barring gender or pregnancy discrimination . In this case, though, the school says it's not about the pregnancy that produced now eight-month- old Sarah , but about a teacher's choice to disregard school standards and have sex outside of marriage, an immoral action. Hamilton 's lawyer is charging discrimination...

    Mr. EDWARD GAY (Jarretta Hamilton's Attorney): This is not a church, this is a school .

    TAIBBI: ...and invasion of privacy.

    Mr. GAY: They went and told the parents of her students. And not only -- they just didn't say that she was terminated, they actually went and said the details.

    TAIBBI: The case has won Hamilton growing support.

    Unidentified Woman: We need good teachers. We don't have enough of them.

    Unidentified Man: If I knew her, I would tell her go all the way with the -- with the lawsuit.

    TAIBBI: And while school administrators are now saying no comment, in their earlier letter they said, "We request that Jarretta withdraw her complaint and consider the testimony of the Lord." For TODAY, Mike Taibbi , NBC News, New York.

    CURRY: Jaretta Hamilton is joining us now exclusively along with her husband, Samuel Treftz , and their eight-month-old daughter, Sarah , as well as their attorney Edward Gay . Good morning to all of you.

    Ms. JARETTA HAMILTON: Good morning.

    CURRY: So Southland Christian School , as you just heard, we reached out to them. But since a lawsuit was pending, they didn't really want to give us any comment. So let me then ask you, when you approached the principal, Jaretta , and you said that you were pregnant and he asked you -- well, first of all, what happened when you asked -- told him that you were pregnant?

    Ms. HAMILTON: Well, basically I went in there to let him know and, you know, my husband and I went in together, in fact, into the meeting. I was only requesting the standard six weeks maternity leave . And as the conversation progressed, he questioned -- in fact, he said, `Well, I'm just trying to do the math here. When did you get married again?' And I said February 20th . And then he said, `Well, did you conceive prior to marriage?' And I answered and I told him, yes. It was really -- it came out of nowhere.

    CURRY: You were shocked that he asked the question, you said?

    Ms. HAMILTON: I was -- I was absolutely shocked. I didn't -- it came out of nowhere. I didn't know -- I didn't think or know to -- you know, I was honest about it. I didn't know it would cost me -- cost me my job.

    CURRY: And when you first -- when you first told him that you were pregnant, is it true that he fell back in the chair and had a reaction?

    Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, he did.

    CURRY: What was that reaction?

    Ms. HAMILTON: He did.

    Mr. SAMUEL TREFTZ: It was definitely not a good reaction.

    CURRY: So even before he knew when the baby was conceived...

    Mr. TREFTZ: Right.

    CURRY: ...he had a negative reaction to the pregnancy?

    Mr. TREFTZ: Yes. Yes.

    CURRY: I see. And so then as this progressed, what really made you upset is that this became public. How did it become public in terms of how long you had been -- when the baby was conceived?

    Ms. HAMILTON: I'm not sure I understand what you're asking.

    CURRY: How was it made public? Your feeling is the school made it public?

    Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, they definitely did. And when they let me go, they told the entire staff in a staff meeting that I had been fired and the reason why they let me go, and then they called all of the parents to my fourth grade students and told them as well. In fact, I had a number of parents call me because they were really upset about it and felt that my performance in the classroom was a what mattered and not my personal life.

    CURRY: What do you say to people who might say, look, you're working at a Christian school and -- you know, that believes that premarital sex is immoral and that, you know, that it violates standards and values, that this is something that the school stands for. What do you say to people who have taken that position?

    Mr. TREFTZ: If there was a contract in place then -- that, you know, had a specific morality clause, I think that it would make a difference.

    Ms. HAMILTON: Right. I think at least people would know what they're getting into. I didn't know that this was their -- you know, that they were going to judge so harshly, that this was the way they, you know, felt about, you know, premarital sex . I wasn't clear on what their stance was on certain issues.

    CURRY: So you never signed anything that specifically talked about this idea?

    Ms. HAMILTON: I never did. There is no contract in place.

    CURRY: So, Edward , then where does this leave us legally? Where does it leave them legally in terms of this? I mean, this is a private school . Do they -- do they have the ability to do whatever they want in terms of this particular standard, this moral standard?

    Mr. GAY: Well, the courts have consistently ruled that a private school is just like any other employer. As long as there's 15 or more employees, they are governed by federal law regarding discrimination. There's no -- there should be no concern here that this case is a precedent-setting case that going to get involved with the ministerial exception. Certainly the pastors and clergy are allowed to make the decisions, you know, as far as church personnel, so that's not, you know, where this case is going. There's a clear distinction in the courts, so.

    CURRY: You're saying that this -- between a school and a church. And so they're going to...

    Mr. GAY: Right. This is -- this is a -- these teachers are serving a secular purpose, therefore they are governed by the federal laws on discrimination.

    CURRY: Meantime, Sam , I know this has been very difficult. You're holding onto Jarretta very tightly and you're holding onto your baby because it's been a very, very tough time. I know that will -- this is not the end of it. We hope to hear how this works out for you. And thank you, Jarretta , for speaking to us.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 6/14/2010 12:01:51 PM ET 2010-06-14T16:01:51

The couple sat close together with her right hand clasped in his left hand and her left arm cradling the 8-month-old daughter whose conception cost the woman her job.

The couple’s sin, according to her former employer, Southland Christian School in St. Cloud, Fla., is fornication — having sex before they got married.

Jarretta Hamilton and her husband of 16 months, Samuel Treftz, told TODAY’s Ann Curry Monday that the termination violated federal anti-discrimination laws. In addition, they allege in a pending lawsuit, the school’s principal, Jon Ennis, invaded Hamilton’s privacy by telling other teachers and the parents of her students the exact reason she was fired.

“When they let me go, they told the entire staff in a staff meeting that I had been fired and the reason why they let me go. And then they called all of my parents to my fourth-grade students and told them as well,” Hamilton said.

Ennis declined to appear on TODAY, citing a lawsuit filed by Hamilton against the school. But in a prerecorded report filed by NBC News’ Mike Taibbi, Ennis was asked if he stood by the firing. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

‘Didn’t know it would cost me my job’
Hamilton said her problems are all the result of her being honest. A widow with five children from her first marriage, she had gotten work as a teacher at Southland Christian School in January 2008. Meanwhile, she also met Treftz, and they planned a Feb. 20, 2009, wedding.

Three weeks before the wedding, she conceived her daughter, Sarah.

In April 2009, Hamilton and Treftz went together to Ennis and told him she would be taking maternity leave in the fall. She says Ennis first complained that it was difficult for the school to cover women on maternity leave.

“I was only requesting a standard six weeks maternity leave, and as the conversation progressed, he said, ‘I’m just trying to do the math here. When did you get married?’ ” Hamilton told Curry.

TODAY
School principal Jon Ennis defends the teacher's firing on moral grounds.
“I said Feb. 20,” she continued. “He said, ‘Well, did you conceive prior to marriage?’ I answered and I told him, ‘Yes.’ ”

Hamilton said she answered partly because she was so surprised by the very personal question.

“I was absolutely shocked. It came out of nowhere. I was honest about it. I didn’t know it would cost me my job,” she said.

Fired for ‘fornication’
A week later, she was notified that she was terminated. In a letter sent to her attorney, Edward Gay, last July, the school’s administrator, Julie Ennis, wrote:

TODAY
When the principal asked if her child had been conceived before her marriage, "I was honest about it," Hamilton said. "I didn't know it would cost me my job."
“Jarretta was asked not to return because of a moral issue that was disregarded, namely fornication, sex outside of marriage. The employment application, which she filled out, clearly states that as a leader before our students we require all teachers to maintain and communicate the values and purpose of our school.”

That’s a long way from saying teachers are prohibited from having premarital sex, the couple argue.

“If there was a contract in place that had a specific morality clause, I think that would make a difference,” Treftz said.

Hamilton agreed, adding, “At least people would know what they’re getting into. I didn’t know that they were going to judge so harshly; that this was the way they felt about premarital sex. I wasn’t clear what their stance was on certain issues.”

Video: Kathie Lee, Hoda talk teacher’s termination Gay, who joined the couple for the TODAY interview, said that pastors and clergy have the right to make moral decisions regarding church personnel, but this case is different because Hamilton was a teacher.

“The courts have consistently ruled that a private school is just like any other employer. As long as there’s more than 50 employees, they are governed by the law regarding discrimination,” Gay said. “The teachers are serving a secular purpose, and therefore they are governed by federal laws of discrimination.”

In the letter explaining the termination to Gay, Julie Ennis ended by asking Hamilton to give up the lawsuit.

“We request that Jarretta withdraw her complaint and consider the testimony of the Lord,” the letter concludes.

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