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Mar 31, 2004

Toledo teacher sues church over dismissal

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Today a trial began in the Supreme Court, which may have far reaching effects on the way our education system is run. It was the first day of a civil lawsuit filed by a Toledo teacher, Maria Roches, against Clement Wade, the National Manager of Catholic Schools. Roches contends that she was fired from her job because she became pregnant and declined to get married. This, she claims, is a violation of her rights. News 5′s Janelle Chanona spent the day in court and files the following report.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

This morning, Roches took the stand, maintaining that she was fired just for being pregnant.

Maria Roches, Teacher

“Teachers on a whole know what we are all going through and we all believe that justice is what we want is justice is what we will get. My human and fundamental rights were violated and I stand with what I think.”

In solidarity with their colleague, a small group of teachers gathered outside the courtroom, some carrying the burden of personal experience with the issue at hand. They say pregnant, unwed teachers have three options: leave the job, get married, or get an abortion.

Berndina Eck, Teacher

“When I got into the teaching profession, I was already married. But because I am in the profession, I have lived it in other ways, seeing my colleagues, what they have to go through. You know when somebody would call you on the phone and tell you, well gyal Eck, you know what, I think I wah have to throw it weh. You keep silent and then when the phone would ring one, two, three o’clock and you have to get up, you know what’s happening, the person has gone through with (becomes emotional) we’re throwing away a child…excuse me.”

Silvana Woods, Teacher

“I am here because I support Ms. Roches one hundred percent. In 1984, I went through this same thing when I got married to a man who was divorced. And you had on the staff males who were also making other women pregnant and so on, and what happen is the male doesn’t get fired; so on that ground alone it’s unfair. So I went through this already, even though it was an issue of marrying somebody who was divorced. And that ex-wife of that divorced person was actually on the parish council, so it was just not fair. Apart from that, the government provides seventy percent of the income that’s need for these schools to run, the Catholic schools, which pays the salaries of the teachers. And so on that ground alone, you can’t take the money to do the much needed work you’re doing and then be so discriminatory. You’ve got some of the managers themselves, some in management themselves who have children outside of marriage, how come they aren’t fired. We’ve got politicians who have children outside of marriage, how come they aren’t fired from their political jobs. And further more, I know of a teacher who has caught three foetuses, has had to help–I shouldn’t even say help, but because her colleagues felt they had no other end, got rid of three foetuses rather than losing their job because of this rule that’ so discriminatory, archaic and totally wrong.”

There strong emotions aside, tonight Belizean teachers are insisting that there be fundamental changes in the way how pregnant unwed teachers are handled within the system. They say that’s because of the strong bias, double standards, and gender inequities that are currently there.

Anthony Fuentes, President, B.N.T.U.

“This is a test case for the union. And based on the outcome of this case I believe that the outcome will go for all the different managements of our schools.”

Janelle Chanona

“If you had to estimate, how many teachers would you say have been put in this position?”

Anthony Fuentes

“I would say an estimated amount of nearly six hundred teachers.”

Today in court, Maria Roches testified that after holding several temporary jobs at different Catholic schools in the Toledo District, she was offered and accepted a permanent position at the Santa Clara R.C. School in September 2000. But three years later, in April 2003, she informed Assistant Local Manager Benjamin Juarez that she was pregnant. Roches testified from the witness box that Juarez’s response was quote, “Yo no done till you get it!”

The educator maintains that she was allowed to continue working until June, but later that same month, the assistant manager called her to a meeting and questioned her about two men, later identified as a teaching colleague and her current boyfriend respectively. It was then Juarez handed her what he called a release letter, stating, “I will just have to do what I have to do.” Roches says she understood that to mean that she would not be able to teach due to her condition.

Despite taking her case to the Toledo Regional Council, a body charged to deal with such matters, and an arbitration panel, both of which ruled that Roches should be reinstated, the teacher was barred from the classroom.

Two key issues in the courtroom today were the legality of the Catholic School Management contract and the release letter. The church maintains that Roches signed the document in 2000, which says the signatory will observe the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church by “living Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sex.” This is a copy of the contract the church has submitted as evidence. But Roches testified today, she never signed it and strongly maintains that the evidence is in fact a forgery. According to her attorney, Dean Barrow, no contract can supersede the laws of Belize.

Dean Barrow, Attorney for Maria Roches

“A contract that’s made in violation of the constitution can’t be good. But there is a second thing, Ms. Roches and the unions are saying that under the education rules, you don’t even need to go as far as the constitution, that under the education rules there is a standard form contract that all publicly managed schools, including the Catholic schools because those schools are government-aided, there is a standard contract that ought to be the contract signed between teachers and the various managements. And therefore, the argument is that this particular contract that the Catholic public schools management is saying Miss Roches signed, and which they say is their standard form contract, is invalid because it is in violation of the rules made under the Education Act.”

Janelle Chanona

“So it’s illegal.”

Dean Barrow

“That’s the argument, yes certainly.”

On cross-examination, counsel for the church, Phillip Zuniga questioned Roches religious upbringing and practice. The teacher testified that despite being baptized as a Roman Catholic, and having attended a catholic primary school she was not aware of the church’s views on sex, marriage, and sin until she was given her release letter.

And then there’s the release letter itself. Zuniga contended that release was different was dismissal. But Assistant Local Manager Benjamin Juarez, on cross examination, admitted that by that letter she was not to teach in the Toledo District and the management stopped paying her, which basically amounts to dismissal. Juarez also admitted on the stand that Roches was “released” because she was pregnant.

Throughout today’s proceedings, Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh was faced with various religious issues and while specific questions about the church’s teachings and rituals were allowed, Conteh at one point had to question the material relevance of “whom sleeps with whom” and had to remind the court that, “this is not a court of morals” and that “the days of the inquisition are long over”.

The trial resumes tomorrow.

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