This much is clear: Less than a week after Michelle McCusker told the principal at St. Rose of Lima School in Queens, N.Y., that she was pregnant, the principal told her, in writing, that she would have to leave her position as a preschool teacher.

The reason Principal Theresa Anderson gave in her Oct. 11 letter of dismissal was that McCusker, a single 26-year-old, had violated the clause in the teacher handbook that said: "Teachers agree to teach and act according to the precepts and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church." Church teaching says it is a sin for an unmarried person to have sex.

The decision not to allow McCusker to continue to teach -- and the publicity the case received when McCusker, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission -- has set off a dizzying round of questions, with few clear-cut answers.

After all, as McCusker noted in her statement posted on the NYCLU website, the Catholic Church considers itself to be unequivocally pro-life. "I don't understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and valuing life could terminate me because I'm pregnant and choosing to have my baby," she wrote.

Feminists for Life publicly agreed, throwing its support behind McCusker in February. But other Catholic groups, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, say that while the Church is pro-life, it cannot hold up an unmarried pregnant woman as a role model for children.

Ethical dilemmas

Franciscan Father Thomas Nairn, who teaches ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, agreed that cases such as McCusker's present a dilemma.

They happen more often than people might think, Father Nairn said, noting that when he worked at a school, the same thing happened, and after much discussion, the teacher was also let go.

But that's not the only right answer, he said.

"There are two things that are always going to be in tension here," Father Nairn said. "A school cannot in some ways demand what teachers are going to do in their private life. What a school can demand is that a teacher not act in contradiction to what a school is trying to teach."

In the case of pregnant teachers, even though the sex took place outside of school hours -- in McCusker's case, apparently before she was hired -- their condition sends a message to students, Nairn said. But so does firing a teacher who is in need of support.

"How does a school view this?" Nairn said. "Is compassion better? Or is almost a prophetic voice better?"

Interpreting the details

The answer could depend on factors such as how the students' parents will react and what is written in the teacher's contract, he said.

McCusker was hired on Sept. 7 for a period of one year. While the issue was not addressed in a contract, she did sign a statement saying she had received and understood the Teacher Personnel Handbook, with its language about upholding Church precepts and doctrines. But, according to the EEOC complaint filed by the NYCLU on McCusker's behalf, neither the handbook nor the school principal specifically discussed premarital sex with McCusker.

In any case, according to the complaint, St. Rose of Lima Parish enforced its policy about upholding the teachings of the Church against a woman because she was pregnant. Because men cannot become pregnant, the complaint argues, the termination shows discrimination against women.

Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, agrees.

"Women who don't get pregnant aren't going to get caught [having sex outside of marriage], women who miscarry early are not going to get caught, women who have abortions are not going to get caught, and men certainly are not going to get caught," she said.

"I think this is the worst example of how a pro-life employer would deal with a situation like this. There were other options. Why didn't somebody counsel her about adoption, marriage or support for single mothers?"

Foster cited her organization's "Women Deserve Better" campaign. The campaign refers to abortion -- and decisions like the one at St. Rose of Lima School can unintentionally lead other women to have abortions, Foster said. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a belief that they will be unable to bear the cost of a child is cited by 73 percent of women seeking abortions as a reason for their decision.

"The Church should be saying, 'We know why women have abortions, and we're not going to contribute to this. We're going to help you,' " Foster said. "To cause a crisis for a pregnant woman ... The impression was given to the world in October that every Catholic school has this policy."

Touch decisions

That's simply not so, said Frank de Rosa, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Brooklyn and Queens.

"This was a parish decision and it was made reluctantly," he said.

It was also made with an offer to continue health benefits for McCusker, although de Rosa did not know if McCusker would have been asked to pay the full cost of the benefits, and with the promise to help her find other employment.

Eventually, McCusker was offered a job in a Catholic Charities-run Head Start program, where employees need not uphold Catholic principles, but she turned it down, de Rosa said.

Meanwhile, McCusker is living with her parents in Queens, working as a substitute teacher in public schools. She has a glowing recommendation in her termination letter from St. Rose of Lima.

In the letter Anderson wrote: "I wish there could have been a better solution. Your teaching ability and love of your children was of a high degree of professionalism. I can only wish you God's continued protection and love. My prayers go with you always. May your child be born healthy, knowing God's loving care."

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.