MILLVILLE — Workers in New Jersey can't be fired because they are separated from their spouse or pursing a divorce, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The court’s unanimous decision extends the protections under the state Law Against Discrimination, which already bars discrimination based on “marital status,” to divorcing employees.

The case was sparked by a Millville Rescue Squad official who sued after being fired. Robert Smith says the squad terminated his employment after he admitted to having an affair with a volunteer and telling his superior that he was pursing a divorce from his wife, who also worked on the squad.

“A person considering marriage or divorce or confronting the death of a spouse should not fear that a marriage ceremony, a divorce decree, or a funeral would trigger a loss of employment or a promised promotion,” Judge Mary Catherine Cuff writes in the court’s opinion.

The opinion says employees must be protected from “commonplace stereotypes that a single employee is not committed to his career or that an engaged employee will be distracted by wedding preparations, or that a divorcing employee will be distracted from his job and even disruptive in the workplace, particularly if the estranged spouse or the spouse’s friends and family are employed by the same employer.”

Millville Rescue Squad (Google Maps)

Smith testified that his supervisor said he believed the separation would be an “ugly divorce” and that he could not promise that his affair would not affect his job.

The board’s stated decision for terminating Smith referred to his poor performance, but Smith argued that he was never formally disciplined and that he had been promoted twice.

A trial court judge initially dismissed the lawsuit, but that decision was overturned by an appellate panel, which also interpreted “marital status” to apply to workers involved in divorce proceedings.

The Supreme Court added that the law "does not prohibit an employer from firing an employee who is engaged in a dispute — marital or otherwise — that has become so contentious that it interferes with his or other employees’ ability to carry out their work."

The Law Against Discrimination enacted in 1945 originally protected against discrimination based on “race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry.”

A 1970 amendment added “marital status” to that list. At least 20 other states prohibit discrimination based on marital status.

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