Monday, March 30, 2015

MORALITY PLAY: Pre-marital relations as ground for Dismissal

By Obiter07

In LEUS vs ST. SCHOLASTICA'S COLLEGE, et al G.R. No. 187226, January 28, 2015, we see how a school’s strict moral standards do not necessarily justify the dismissal of an employee. In this case, the petitioner was hired by a Catholic school as part of its non-teaching personnel. She engaged in pre-marital sexual relations and got pregnant. When the school discovered the pregnancy, the Directress advised her to resign. She refused. The Directress then directed her to explain why she should not be dismissed for “engaging in pre-marital sexual relations and getting pregnant as a result thereof, which amounts to serious misconduct and conduct unbecoming of an employee of a Catholic school.”

In response, she explained “that her pregnancy out of wedlock does not amount to serious misconduct or conduct unbecoming of an employee.” She stated that she was not aware of any policy that this constituted serious misconduct and, thus, a ground for dismissal. She asked for a copy of the school’s policy and guidelines.

The Directress informed her that the school follows the 1992 Manual of Regulations for Private Schools (1992 MRPS); that Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS cites “disgraceful or immoral conduct” as a ground for dismissal in addition to the just causes for termination of employment provided under Article 282 of the Labor Code.”

She responded, through counsel, that “pre-marital sex between two consenting adults without legal impediment to marry each other who later on married each other does not fall within the contemplation of “disgraceful or immoral conduct” and “serious misconduct” of the Manual of Regulations for Private Schools and the Labor Code of the Philippines.” They argued that petitioner being a bad example to the students was “speculative and is more imaginary than real.”

The school, now also through counsel, “maintained that pre-marital sexual relations, even if between two consenting adults without legal impediment to marry, is considered a disgraceful and immoral conduct or a serious misconduct xxx.” And that the school “has the right to uphold the teaching of the Catholic Church xxx.” They further asserted that the petitioner’s indiscretion is further aggravated by the fact that she is the Assistant to the Director of the Lay Apostolate and Community Outreach Directorate, a position of responsibility that the students look up to as role model.” She was asked to explain why she should not be dismissed.”

The petitioner advised the school that she was adopting her counsel’s letter as her written explanation. She was thereafter terminated by the school on the ground of serious misconduct, stating that “pre-marital sexual relations between two consenting adults with no impediment to marry, even if they subsequently married, amounts to immoral conduct.”

Petitioner filed a complaint for illegal dismissal with the NLRC which was dismissed, with the Labor Arbiter and the Commission ruling against her.  This was likewise upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The need for proof that pre-marital sex and
pregnancy out of wedlock are disgraceful or immoral

The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the CA. However, it did uphold the validity of the 1992 MRPS, specifically Section 94 as having been validly issued by the Secretary of Education pursuant to BP 232.

The Court then focused on the validity of the dismissal which “hinges on the determination of whether pregnancy out of wedlock by an employee of a catholic educational institution is a cause for the termination of her employment.  But the Court resolved this “from a strictly neutral and secular point of view – the relationship between SSCW as employer and the petitioner as an employee, the causes provided for by law in the termination of such relationship, and the evidence on record.”

Her dismissal was based on “pre-marital sexual relations and, consequently, pregnancy out of wedlock.”  This was to be assessed as to whether the same constitutes a valid ground for dismissal pursuant to Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS which provides that:

“Sec. 94. Causes of Terminating Employment – In addition to the just causes enumerated in the Labor Code, the employment of school personnel, including faculty, may be terminated for any of the following causes:
x x x x
e. Disgraceful or immoral conduct;
x x x x”

The Court found no substantial evidence to support the previous conclusion arrived at by the labor tribunals that she engaged in “disgraceful and immoral conduct.” Without more, pregnancy out of wedlock “is not enough to characterize the petitioner’s conduct as disgraceful or immoral. There must be substantial evidence to establish that pre-marital sexual relations and, consequently, pregnancy out of wedlock, are indeed considered disgraceful or immoral.”

Determining disgraceful and
immoral conduct

The Court held that “the determination of whether a conduct is disgraceful or immoral involves a two-step process: first, a consideration of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the conduct; and second, an assessment of the said circumstances vis-à-vis the prevailing norms of conduct, i.e., what the society generally considers moral and respectable.”  It further stated that her employment by a Catholic school “per se does not absolutely determine whether her pregnancy out of wedlock is disgraceful or immoral. There is still a necessity to determine whether the petitioner’s pregnancy out of wedlock is considered disgraceful or immoral in accordance with the prevailing norms of conduct.”

Interestingly, the Court made a distinction between public and secular morality versus religious morality. The distinction “is important because the jurisdiction of the Court extends only to public and secular morality. As cited by the Court:

The morality referred to in the law is public and necessarily secular, not religious x x x. Religious teachings as expressed in public debate may influence the civil public order but public moral disputes may be resolved only on grounds articulable in secular terms. Otherwise, if government relies upon religious beliefs in formulating public policies and morals, the resulting policies and morals would require conformity to what some might regard as religious programs or agenda. xxx Succinctly put, a law could be religious or Kantian or Aquinian or utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it must have an articulable and discernible secular purpose and justification to pass scrutiny of the religion clauses. x x x.”

Extramarital relations with between unmarried persons
is not disgraceful and immoral

Under these tests, two things may be concluded from the fact that an unmarried woman gives birth out of wedlock with respect to administrative cases: (i) if the father of the child is single, then the woman is not ordinarily liable for disgraceful and immoral conduct and (ii) if the father is married to someone else, then, then there is a cause for administrative sanction against either of them. The “disgraceful and immoral conduct” consists of having extramarital relations with a married person. “The sanctity of marriage is constitutionally recognized and likewise affirmed by our statutes as a special contract of permanent union.”

When the law refers to morality – it is public
and secular morality, not religious morality

The Court, applying those doctrines to the case, stated that that “the right of an employee to security of tenure is protected by the Constitution. Perfunctorily, a regular employee may not be dismissed unless for cause provided under the Labor Code and other relevant laws, in this case, the 1992 MRPS. As stated above, when the law refers to morality, it necessarily pertains to public and secular morality and not religious morality. Thus, the proscription against “disgraceful or immoral conduct” under Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS, which is made as a cause for dismissal, must necessarily refer to public and secular morality. Accordingly, in order for a conduct to be considered as disgraceful or immoral, it must be “‘detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society’ and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other.”

The Court did “not find any circumstance” xxx “to conclude that the petitioner committed a disgraceful or immoral conduct. It bears stressing that the petitioner and her boyfriend, at the time they conceived a child, had no legal impediment to marry. Indeed, even prior to her dismissal, the petitioner married her boyfriend, the father of her child. As the Court has previously held, “there is no law which penalizes an unmarried mother by reason of her sexual conduct or proscribes the consensual sexual activity between two unmarried persons; that neither does such situation contravene any fundamental state policy enshrined in the Constitution.”

Her conduct “viewed against the prevailing norms of conduct,” xxx “cannot be considered as disgraceful or immoral; such conduct is not denounced by public and secular morality. It may be an unusual arrangement, but it certainly is not disgraceful or immoral within the contemplation of the law. To stress, pre-marital sexual relations between two consenting adults who have no impediment to marry each other, and, consequently, conceiving a child out of wedlock, gauged from a purely public and secular view of morality, does not amount to a disgraceful or immoral conduct under Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS.”

Contrary to the labor tribunals’ declarations, the Court also found that the school “failed to adduce substantial evidence to prove that the petitioner conduct caused grave scandal to the school and its students.”  Since she was only a non-teaching personnel; her interaction with the students is minimal.

In termination cases, “the burden of proving that the dismissal of the employees was for a valid and authorized cause rests on the employer.”  However, there was no valid ground for dismissal as her “conduct is not considered by law as disgraceful or immoral.” As admitted, the school at the time did not have “any policy or rule against an employee who engages in pre-marital sexual relations and conceives a child as a result thereof.”  With no basis in law or in its policy and rules, the dismissal was “despotic and arbitrary and, thus, not a valid exercise of management prerogative.”  The Court awarded her “separation pay, in lieu of actual reinstatement, full backwages and attorney’s fees, but not to moral and exemplary damages.”

The moral of the story appears to be that even for a Catholic school, secular and not religious standards will prevail.  This highlights another separation, not of Church and State, but between Church and Court, at least when it comes to norms of conduct.


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