Israeli Court Rules Religious School Cannot Fire Teacher for Pregnancy

'The right to be a parent, the freedom to work, and human dignity and liberty,' says the court, supersede the right of a religious school to shield its students from alternative family models.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

A religious school cannot fire an unmarried female teacher who becomes pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, even though the law allows such schools to take religious values into account when making personnel decisions, the Tel Aviv Labor Court ruled Monday.

The court ruled that “the right to be a parent, the freedom to work, and human dignity and liberty” supersede the right of a religious school to refuse to expose its students to alternative family models.

The ulpana (girls’ high school) in this case will have to pay high compensation to the teacher, who was dismissed in 2009 upon telling school officials she was pregnant. She had previously taught at the school for eight years.

Thus ended a four-year legal saga, during which various issues were clarified in principle, including the degree of autonomy enjoyed by religious schools, and issues of Jewish law, parenting, and trends in the national-religious community.

The ulpana, located in the center of the country, did not consult with the Education Ministry’s state religious education council before dismissing the teacher, but the council backed the school retroactively and was thus also named a defendant in the suit. The school and the council are now weighing whether to appeal the ruling to the National Labor Court.

IVF for single women has been accepted, post factum, by some modern Orthodox rabbis, such as Rabbi Yuval Sherlo. During the hearings, the school did not claim that the woman had violated Jewish law, but rather argued that she was setting an improper example for the students.

When Rabbi Haim Druckman, the rabbinic authority for the ulpana was asked by the teacher’s lawyer what made a single woman’s pregnancy a worse example for the girls than spinsterhood or divorce, he replied that while both those phenomena were regretable, “a teacher who doesn’t have children hasn’t done anything negative that contravenes our Torah outlook. She [the plaintiff] did something negative.”

The court, however, did not agree.

“When the values of the defendant and its desire to preserve these values are pitted against a teacher who is not committing an act of protest but simply wants to realize her right to parenthood, the desire of the teacher to be a parent must in this case be given priority,” the court ruled. “The plaintiff cannot be excluded just because of this ... when her colleagues who are single and/or divorced are not excluded by the defendant even though they are not living ‘traditional’ family lives.”

The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s equal employment opportunity commission had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, meaning it offered information but that it had not been solicited by any of the parties involved. Attorney Shiri Lev-Ran Lavi, the commission’s representative, said she was proud of the ruling.

“The ulpana had a lot of very strong arguments linked to the law that gives it autonomy in making religious judgments,” said Lev-Ran Lavi. “It was a courageous ruling that was not at all self-evident, since to date no court has ruled this way.”

“I thought the court would rely on procedural arguments, but it gave substantive explanations and intervened in one of the most sensitive aspects of national-religious education educational autonomy,” she noted.

A pregnant woman (illustrative).Credit: Reuters

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