A substitute teacher in New Jersey was suspended for the school year in response to giving a student a copy of the Bible and talking about a Scripture verse with the student while on duty.
The Phillipsburg School District Board decided Monday that Walter Tutka, a substitute teacher and member of Gideons International, was guilty of violating two policies during an incident in October.
According to local media, Tutka quoted Matthew 20:16 ("So the last will be first, and the first will be last") to a student who was last in line. The student asked where the phrase came from, to which Tutka took out his copy of the New Testament and showed him. He then loaned his New Testament to the student, who returned it later.
Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told The Christian Post that the school board "overreacted" in their decision against Tutka.
"In fact, the school board probably violated the teacher's constitutional rights. The teacher has a right to use Scripture phrases, especially those that are so well-known and grounded in history as the one he used," said Staver.
"It's both outrageous and sad that the school board would react this way. The Bible has always been part of our history, including in public schools."
Regarding the possibility of legal action, Staver also told CP that Liberty Counsel "would represent this teacher" if so asked to.
Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told The Christian Post that the issue had more to do with parental rights.
"We don't know what religious beliefs, if any, this child was being brought up in at home. But it is safe to say that if his parents wanted him to have a Bible, they could have given him one," said Boston.
"Christians must realize that if they open the door for Bible distribution in public schools, a lot of other religions (and non-religions) will seek the same right. How would you feel about your child being given a copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion by a public school teacher?"
When the Phillipsburg School Board voted to terminate Tutka for the year, three of the board members abstained, citing their own lack of experience on the issue.
According to the board's decision, Tutka violated the school system policy against distributing religious literature to students and the policy that teachers must be neutral on religious issues.
"The Supreme Court has made clear many times that this type of objective instruction about religion is appropriate in public schools. A good rule of thumb is that public schools may teach about religion but may not preach it," said Boston, echoing the religious neutrality policy.
David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Christian Post that the board punished Tutka for a crime he did not commit.
"It is often said that the punishment should fit the crime. This doesn't even come close. Here, there was no crime and therefore should not have been any punishment at all, never mind one that results in firing the teacher for the year," said Cortman.
"The Bible should not be treated as pornography. Not only is it permissible to teach the Bible in public schools, it violates no law to give one to a student when asked. The board should have defended this teacher's actions."
In response to the board's decision, according to Fox News, Tutka has sought legal advice from the Liberty Institute's Hiram Sasser.
The Phillipsburg School Board did not return comment to The Christian Post by press time.