A Florida high school teacher who was suspended from the classroom for a comment he made against gay marriage on his Facebook page has gained an unlikely defender – an atheist.
Hemant Mehta, also known as the "friendly atheist," initially wanted to join in on the backlash against the teacher – Jerry Buell from Mount Dora High School. But he now argues that Buell should not be punished for his beliefs about homosexuality, as long as they are not articulated in the classroom.
"This is a free speech issue," Mehta wrote on his blog Saturday. "You don’t have to like what Buell said – I know I don’t – but everyone has the right to believe what they want, even if it’s crazy, untrue, or harmful."
Buell has been teaching for more than 22 years. He has served as the Social Studies Department chair at Mount Dora High and taught American history and government. Last year, he was named Teacher of the Year.
But he was suspended and reassigned to administrative duties pending an investigation into his Facebook comments.
Buell posted on his personal page: "I'm watching the news, eating dinner, when the story about New York okaying same sex unions came on and I almost threw up. And now they showed two guys kissing after their announcement. If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don't insult a man and woman's marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool as same-sex whatever! God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable???"
He went on to say he will never accept or condone same-sex marriage. "[I]t ain't a marriage," he wrote, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
"God loves us ALL, unconditionally, regardless of what we do. But He will not tolerate our actions forever. He hates sin, no matter the lable (sic) or degree. There are some things He calls abominations and 'it' is one of them."
Gay marriage was legalized in New York in June.
The teacher's comments were reported to Lake County School District officials by a former student, Brett Winters, who graduated in 2002.
Mehta, an outspoken atheist and a math teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Illinois, disagrees with Buell's comments, calling him a bigot.
But he stressed in his blog, "Keep in mind: there’s no evidence he acted on these beliefs in the classroom."
The atheist can empathize with Buell. Two years ago, the conservative Illinois Family Institute complained to his school officials about posts he made on his friendly atheist blog. Officials sided with Mehta.
"[T]hey knew I didn’t bring my activism into the classroom," Mehta said. "Whether they agreed with me or not on the social/political issues was irrelevant."
With regard to Buell, while some students may feel uncomfortable in his classroom, his private views should not matter, Mehta contended.
"He never cast an evil eye on gay students in class. He didn’t give gay students lower grades than straight kids for the same work. He wasn’t preaching to his social studies students," the atheist noted. "On Facebook, he wasn’t demeaning specific students of his. This was private speech made outside the classroom."
"As far as we’ve seen, when Buell entered the school, he left his private beliefs at the door. That’s all we can ask for."
Liberty Counsel, which is representing Buell, has demanded an apology from the school district for violating Buell's First Amendment rights and has asked that the teacher be immediately reinstated.
"Mr. Buell is being investigated and punished for communicating his mainstream objection to homosexual marriage, an objection shared by a large majority of his fellow Floridians who have outlawed homosexual marriage through a constitutional amendment," Liberty Counsel maintained.
"If the First Amendment does not protect Mr. Buell’s right to voice his personal opinion, on his personal time, from his personal computer, on his personal Facebook page, then the First Amendment means nothing."