EUGENE — Having lost its case in federal court several months ago regarding the July 2015 firing of a professor, a Christian university here has concluded the matter through an undisclosed settlement with her.
Pat Walsh, senior director of marketing and communication for Northwest Christian University, last month confirmed the settlement but gave no details and said the school would have no further comment.
In March, a federal judge ruled that university administrators illegally discriminated against Coty Richardson when they fired her because she got pregnant out of wedlock and then refused an ultimatum to either marry her boyfriend or leave him. Before her dismissal, Richardson was an assistant professor of exercise science at the 700-student school.
Richardson, 35 at the time, responded by suing the university for $650,000 in Lane County Circuit Court. She alleged that the university violated her civil and employment rights by wrongfully terminating her. She asked for $150,000 reimbursement for economic losses and $50,000 for emotional distress and other noneconomic damages.
Richardson had worked nearly four years for the university and had received good evaluations for her job performance.
According to the lawsuit, she informed Dennis Lindsay,the university’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, in May 2015 about her pregnancy. She claimed her supervisors quickly gave her an “unequivocal” ultimatum — either get married immediately or declare her pregnancy a mistake and end her relationship with her romantic partner of 12 years.
At the time, Richardson was the single mother of two children but the child she then carried was the first with her boyfriend, who lived in Seattle. According to the lawsuit filing, Richardson had discussed marriage with her partner but had decided for financial, emotional and practical reasons that it wasn’t the right time and that she felt it was acceptable as a devout follower of Christ to wait until a more appropriate time to wed.
But in the termination letter, Lindsay stated that sexual relations outside of marriage was contrary to the university’s core values. Richardson also claimed in the lawsuit that Lindsay had previously told her that a continued unmarried relationship with the baby’s father would set a bad example for the university’s students.
The suit further alleged that Richardson suffered discrimination because of her gender, and also that male employees of the university were not fired after their partners became pregnant out of wedlock.
HKM Employment Attorneys, the Portland law firm representing Richard-son, set up an online petition asking the university to reinstate her as a faculty member.
The case eventually advanced to federal court in Portland, and Judge Ann Aiken last spring issued a 33-page opinion and order in Richardson’s favor. Ai-ken rejected the university’s claim that it is immune to employment discrimination claims; the school had contended that its First Amendment right to religious freedom barred federal courts from intervening in disputes over members of the clergy and some other employees of religious institutions.
The judge ruled that the school cannot discriminate any more than any other institution unless the hiring and firing is specifically related to ministers. Aiken determined that Richard-son’s job title as an exercise science professor was secular, that she did not undergo any specialized religious training before assuming her teaching job, and that although Richardson professed her Christian faith, there was no evidence that she held herself out as a minister.
Daniel Kalish, Richardson’s attorney at the Portland firm, told In-sideHigherEd.com that Aiken’s ruling means religious schools “don’t get a free pass” to engage in employment discrimination.