(Photo: Reuters/Julie Gordon)
A magistrate judge has ruled that a New York public school's removal of Christian items from a science teacher's classroom was legal. The teacher, Joelle Silver, had multiple Bible verses on display, as well as a painting that included three crosses on a hill, and a prayer request box on her desk that was placed there by the school's Bible Study Club, which she served as a faculty monitor.
The decision given Tuesday by a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York dismissed part of the motion given by the Christian teacher.
Judge Leslie G. Foschio argued that Silver's lawsuit against Cheektowaga Central School District, its Superintendent Dennis Kane and its Board of Education President Brian J. Gould could not proceed on the basis of her rights being violated when they removed the Christian items.
Silver's lawsuit reveals that while Christian-themed posters and post-it notes were removed from her classroom, a social worker at the high school is allowed to display materials inside and outide her office that "promote the gay rights agenda."
These materials included posters, bumper stickers and decals "one decal with the 'equal' symbol of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay rights, anti-Christian activist organization."
According to the lawsuit, although the soical worker's materials are intended to create a "welcoming environment," for LGBT students, "the displays also create an atmosphere of intolerance toward students who have religious objections to promoting the LGBT lifestyle or agenda."
In the 42-page decision, Foschio did, however, conclude that the lawsuit could advance on the complaint of Silver regarding equal protection on allegations of selective enforcement.
"Accordingly, defendants' motion, insofar as it seeks qualified immunity for defendant Kane should be granted as to the First Amendment claims, and the equal protection claim pertaining to plaintiff's display of religious-themed materials in her classroom, but should be denied as to plaintiff's equal protection claim based on alleged selective enforcement," wrote Foschio.
Silver is being represented by the American Freedom Law Center. In a statement, AFLC co-founder and senior counsel Robert Muise took issue with the decision.
"Similar to the school district's censorship of Ms. Silver's speech, the magistrate judge's report and recommendation is dripping with hostility to religion," said Muise.
"To assert that the school district was justified in ordering Ms. Silver to remove small, sticky notes containing handwritten, inspirational Bible verses that she attached to the back her desk for fear that these small, personal notes would violate the Establishment Clause, as the school district argued and the magistrate judge found, is simply absurd."
In June 2012, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Cheektowaga Central School District in protest of the religious imagery in Silver's classroom at Cheektowaga Central High School.
FFRF said they had learned about the classroom displays from an anonymous student and were acting on that student's behalf.
"Teachers should strive to conduct their classes in an inclusive manner so that students can participate fully without compromising their own personal beliefs," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert to Superintendent Kane.
By September 2012, the FFRF reported that Kane had removed all the religious imagery from the classroom.
"In a series of replies sent on June 20, June 22 and Sept. 11, Kane informed FFRF that he took the complaint very seriously, had done an extensive investigation of the matter, and confirmed what the student described," stated FFRF.
"He reported that all religious displays were removed from the classroom and that the teacher was reprimanded and directed not to discuss religion in her classroom."
In January 2013, Silver filed a complaint against the school district for removing of the Christian images from her classroom.
"This case seeks to protect and vindicate fundamental constitutional rights. It is a civil rights action brought under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging Defendants' acts, policies, practices, and/or customs that, individually and collectively, deprived and continue to deprive plaintiff of her fundamental constitutional rights," read the introduction to the complaint.
Regarding the direction of lawsuit from here, in his statement released after Tuesday's decision AFLC's Muise said that "this fight is far from over."