Another Proselytizing Teacher Files Suit

Following in the footsteps of John Freshwater, a science teacher in Cheektowaga, NY has filed a lawsuit against the school for making her take down a bunch of posters and other items in her classroom that were solely designed to proselytize her students.

Joelle Silver, a teacher at the school for seven years, says she received a “counseling letter” to remove the items from her classroom. The suit was filed against the district, President of the Board of Education Brian J. Gould, and Superintendent of Schools Dennis Kane.

According to the complaint, filed by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC), a group that fights for religious issues, Silver had four small posters in her room with psalm verses on them, a poster with a religious quotation from Ronald Reagan, a drawing that the district said is reference to the crucifixion, a poster that had a Bible verse superimposed on the American flag and school books, among other items. The letter Silver received instructed her to take the items down and warned that failing to do so could lead to serious disciplinary consequences.

Superintendent Kane, who says he respects Silver’s teaching abilities, says the materials were found to be inappropriate and the district determined they needed to be removed.

Good. The school is doing the right thing. What possible purpose could posters with Bible verses on them have in a science classroom other than to send a message to students that they should believe in the Bible? None, of course. The American Freedom Law Center, by the way, is an offshoot of the Thomas More Law Center, founded by Robert Muise, who worked for the TMLC (and was one of the attorneys that got crushed so badly in the Dover trial).

Silver said, “I believe that my First Amendment rights were violated last June when I was asked to do some things regarding taking some posters down and to censor my speech in the classroom. As a Christian and as an American I feel it’s incredibly important to fight to protect the rights that people have died to give them.”

The complaint filed against the district also says Silver was told not to participate in the Bible Study Club’s meetings or activities, so it could not be interpreted as being promoted by her or the district. The letter states Silver had a ‘prayer box’ in the classroom that was being used by the club throughout the school day and instructed her to remove it. The complaint alleges that, by contrast, the school’s Gay Straight Alliance is allowed to have students participate in club activities during the school day.

Robert Muise of the AFLC said, “She was even prevented from having any communication with students during the school day that might have any religious contents.”

No, your First Amendment rights were not violated. You don’t have a First Amendment right to proselytize your students in your capacity as a teacher. As always, the test here is quite simple. Would they be taking the same position if a Muslim teacher put posters in their room with verses from the Quran on them? Of course not. They’d be screaming bloody murder about it. All that talk about religious liberty and free speech would vanish.

27 comments on this post.
  1. d.c.wilson:

    This probably will never end until there actually is a Muslim teacher is instructed to take verses from the Koran down. Even then, the Christianists will still plead that theirs is a special case.

  2. ArtK:

    Robert Muise of the AFLC said, “She was even prevented from having any communication with students during the school day that might have any religious contents.”

    Well, yes.

    “People unclear on the concept.”

  3. The Lorax:

    Having the stuff in the classroom is one thing, but what about the club issue? It seems the only thing she did wrong there was participate in the club after being told not to… now, I never really participated in clubs, so I’m unclear on this, but are teachers generally not supposed to participate in clubs, even if it’s something they’re interested in? Or is it just religious clubs, as per the first amendment and the teacher being a public employee?

  4. cry4turtles:

    Back in school, I would’ve been very uncomfortable if a teacher had spoken to me with religious overtones. I’m so happy I grew up in the 70s!!

  5. Kengi:

    The Lorax: “…what about the club issue?”

    From an article at The Friendly Atheist:

    “Actually, they’re telling her they will remove her as faculty sponsor ONLY if she continues to promote the group’s beliefs in her science classrooms.”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/01/11/high-school-teacher-sues-her-district-after-they-tell-her-to-stop-proselytizing-to-students/

  6. Cuttlefish:

    Oddly enough, I just got done reading Johnson v. Poway Unified School District ( http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/09/13/10-55445.pdf ). I recommend this teacher read it as well. Very similar case; you can guess which way it was decided.

  7. eric:

    @3: obviously its only a 1st amendment establishment issue if the club is religious. However, IIRC from the Freshwater case, teachers in that disctrict already had a neutral policy in place stating that teachers were basically supposed to act as monitors, not guide or lead the kids in club activities – and that went for ANY club, not just the religious ones. The teacher was there to make sure the kids behave themselves, not guide their club activities. (Freshwater, of course, broke those rules along with all the others).

    Maybe its different in Cheektowaga, NY and teachers are allowed more direct participation in normal club activities. But I would bet that even if that were the case, religious clubs would have to be treated differently because of potential endorsement issues surrounding a teacher opining to students about matters of religion.

  8. eric:

    Silver said, “I believe that my First Amendment rights were violated last June when I was asked to do some things regarding taking some posters down and to censor my speech in the classroom.

    Your speech is censored in the classroom. Get used to it. For two good reasons: (1) the execption about teachers and students is narrow and the reasoning very well documented in prior court cases. Any competent lawyer should know that; yours probably don’t. (2) you’re acting as an employee, not a private citizen. Employers can indeed put limits on OTJ speech. Its your speech as a private citizen that’s protected. Again, any competent lawyer should know that, but yours probably don’t.

  9. thisisaturingtest:

    Sorry, I don’t understand why this keeps coming up. It’s just not that hard to understand that your right, as an individual citizen, to protection from the government interfering with your free choice of religion does not extend to a right, as, essentially, an agent of government, to proselytize for that religion. Isn’t there some legal remedy for continually beating a legally dead horse?

  10. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle:

    She’s a SCIENCE TEACHER?!?!?!?!?! *facepalm* *headdesk*

  11. Quodlibet:

    “I believe that my First Amendment rights were violated last June when I was asked to do some things regarding taking some posters down and to censor my speech in the classroom. As a Christian and as an American I feel it’s incredibly important to fight to protect the rights that people have died to give them.”

    I’m glad she’s not a teacher of English grammar.

  12. eric:

    She’s a SCIENCE TEACHER?!?!?!?!?! *facepalm* *headdesk*

    This should get a headdesk for ANY teacher. After all, the whole point of education courses (separate from subject matter courses) is to teach things like curriculum design, lesson design, classroom management, etc. The subject of what you legally can’t say or do as a teacher, in any classroom across the nation is not a science subject matter issue; its an issue of general teaching practices and any teacher should learn it.

    Pointing out that she’s a science teacher is sort of like pointing out that someone who got caught for speeting was a TOYOTA driver. Um, no; all drivers should know that speeding is illegal.

  13. cottonnero:

    I’ll try to find the link, but I read somewhere that a similar meme to the Freshwater “Bible on the desk” thing was floating around Cheektowaga, that it was “about one poster” or something like that. Very similar playbook.

  14. Marcus Ranum:

    a religious quotation from Ronald Reagan

    A reagantarian?

  15. Marcus Ranum:

    Pointing out that she’s a science teacher is sort of like pointing out that someone who got caught for speeting was a TOYOTA driver.

    No, it’s more like pointing out that someone who got caught for speeding was a driving safety instructor.

  16. Marcus Ranum:

    The reason that we’re seeing more of these cases is just population dynamics in action. As more and more people leave religion, the “slow bus” effect will kick in harder and harder and the hump in the middle of the bell curve will no longer be centered on “slightly foolish” it’ll be on “blithering bumbler” So the tails will be on “abysmally clueless” and “slightly foolish” except that the “slightly foolish” will be the smart members of that particular population. As the believers become more intellectually isolated (they’re going to have to hide from the internet to protect their ignorance) we can expect punctuated-equlibriots to appear in clusters within society, but nobody will notice them except for the occasional one who runs for office.

  17. eric:

    Marcus Ranum:

    No, it’s more like pointing out that someone who got caught for speeding was a driving safety instructor.

    No. Science teachers do not instruct students on 1st amendment rights or legal teacher conduct, so your analogy is not correct. A background in science is irrelevant in terms of understanding a teacher’s freedom of speech rights in the classroom, so its more like make or model of car (which are analogously irrelevant). So I repeat my original point: every teacher should know such limitations, because this is the sort of thing that should be included in their general education courses – it is NOT going to come from some individual subject matter course. A chemistry teacher’s courses in chemistry are not going to teach them squat about what posters are constitutional to hang on a classroom wall. There is no reason to expect said chemistry teacher to know anything more about poster legality than any other teacher.

    Now, if there was a teacher discipline that I expected to be better versed in speech rights in the classroom, it would frankly be American History or a teacher of some sort of Law elective.

  18. d.c.wilson:

    How hard is it for colleges to find to teach future teachers that they are on the school district’s (taxpayer’s) time and they aren’t being paid to find recruits for their respective cults?

  19. magistramarla:

    When I was the teacher sponsor/mentor for a Gay/Straight Alliance club, I was told to “babysit” the group and to not participate. Luckily, I had a great President and VP of the group. Those two girls would meet privately in my classroom to plan meetings and would privately ask for my opinions and input.
    During the actual meeting, they would run the show and I sat at my desk, grading papers.
    This was in Texas, and those two girls realized that most of the younger members of the group had no idea how AIDS was contracted and spread and had never learned anything about contraception. They did a lot of research, put together a great PowerPoint and presented it to the group.
    I was proud of my GSA group, especially those two young ladies, who did a lot to help their peers. I’m still in touch with them. They are now partners and are college students.
    My brave little group also baked and sold cupcakes with rainbow frosting after school to raise money for the club. (The called themselves The Snack Fairies). The administration wasn’t happy, but I reminded the AP that the Christian athletes club sold pizza slices after school.
    It can be tricky sponsoring any club when underage students are involved.

  20. thisisaturingtest:

    I have to wonder too- would the conservatives who are always on about how our court system is being abused and destroyed by folks with “frivolous lawsuits” agree that this is one of them?

  21. naflrigdlab:

    I really wish some brave non-Christian teacher would deliberately display non-Christian religious sentiments in their classroom for the express purpose of exposing the hypocrisy of those Christians who believe their freedom of speech or freedom of religion are being violated (such as this teacher and her supporters seems to believe.)

    If they chose to object then they would have to justify why it is that they supported the Christian but not the non-Christian. They would have to justify why their beliefs deserved a privilege that they would deny to those with other beliefs.

    Even better than a Muslim doing this would be a Jew given the faux respect that Christians show Jews (such as using the term “Judeo Christian.”)

    I have a book titled “You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God…How to Refute Christian Missionaries”.

    Too bad it does not come with a poster listing the various reasons why some Jews reject Christ as the Messiah. Might look good on a classroom wall.

  22. dingojack:

    “As a Christian and as an American I feel it’s incredibly important to fight to protect the rights that people have died to give them.”

    Perhaps this science teacher needs a crash course in civics:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. [Emphasis mine]

    “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people“. [Emphasis mine]

    No one died for them, they were yours all along.

    Dingo

  23. Marcus Ranum:

    Science teachers do not instruct students on 1st amendment rights or legal teacher conduct, so your analogy is not correct

    My analogy was based on the principle “doing something that they absolutely know better than to do” and is quite correct.

  24. StevoR, fallible human being:

    What possible purpose could posters with Bible verses on them have in a science classroom other than to send a message to students that they should believe in the Bible?

    Dart targets? Emergency coasters and scarp paper? Ink and bleach testing paper? Termite and other insect feed store? Paper plane & spitball construction material? Emergency mopping up cleaning paper? Emergency toilet paper?

    Given a creative imagination I’m sure some use could be found for them!

  25. bradleybetts:

    There’s been alot of talk about her being a science teacher… I think that phrase is missing a couple of ironic quote marks. It would be better written as “Science” “Teacher”.

  26. cjcolucci:

    The complaint asserts free speech, equal protection, and establishment clause (not free exercise clause) claims. I can imagine a far-fetched but barely possible state of affairs that might be a free speech or equial protection violation, but how is telling someone not to post religious messages on government property an establishment clause violation?

  27. speed0spank:

    Recently I am reminded more and more of when I was a little kid and the coolest response to someone telling you to “shut up!” was “I don’t have to! It’s a free country!”.
    Apparently some people just never ever learn how these freedoms actually work.

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