A New Jersey school district broke the law when it fired a substitute teacher after he gave a curious middle school student a Bible for academic purposes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in a mid-December decision released to the public this week.
The federal agency ruled it was an act of discrimination for Phillipsburg School District to fire substitute teacher Walt Tutka in 2013 after he gave a Bible to an interested student who had approached him privately and asked to be shown where in the Bible the saying "the first will be last and the last will be first" is written.
Tutka, who spoke with Fox News, said that the incident started during in October of 2012 when he held the door open for the line of students exiting his classroom on their way to lunch. As the last student walked out the door, Tutka told the student, "just remember, the first will be last and the last will be first."
In the ensuing weeks, Tutka said he was approached by the same student several times, as the student expressed that he had never heard the saying before and wanted to know where it came from. Tutka told the student that the saying come from the Bible.
On another occasion, the student approached Tutka and asked where in the Bible the saying is located. Tutka did not know, off the top of his head, where that saying was located in the Bible. He told the student that he would look it up for him and let him know. Tutka said that he found the saying in passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke and then told the kid that it was located in those chapters.
"I thought that was going to be the end of it, but it wasn't," Tutka said. "He continued to speak with me until one day I happened to have my Bible with me right during lunch. It hit me when he stopped me and I said, 'Look, here it is right here. Here you go.
"It was a gift," Tutka added. "[He] said [he] didn't have one; [he] wanted one."
Swiftly upon learning about Tutka's gesture, the school district claimed that Tutka had violated school policy and placed him under disciplinary action. The school's policy states that a teacher may not distribute religious materials on school property and also that teachers should avoid using religious speech in any way.
"[Tutka got] called into the principal's office, and they had confiscated the 'contraband,' the Bible," Hiram Sasser, director of litigation at the Liberty Institute, a legal group that specializes in cases of religious liberty and represent Tutka, told Fox News.
Reports indicate that Tutka was sent a letter weeks later from the district's superintendent George Chando, which said that the superintendent was recommending a 90-day suspension for Tutka as punishment. The school board finally addressed Tutka's punishment in January of 2013 and opted to instead fire him
"Having gone through this and the various meetings and so forth that this would come out that; this was strictly for academic purposes," Tutka asserted. "The student approached me. His curiosity wanted to know about this verse. We just dealt with that one verse."
Sasser believes that Tutka's affiliation with the Evangelical organization Gideon's International, which provides Bibles to children all over the globe, put a target on his back.
"What is really wild is that the school district had this allergic reaction to the Bible, when Walt was just handing the Bible to the kid for an academic reason," Sasser said. "But because he is a member of the Gideons, they knew that. They jumped to some conclusions and they came after him."
The Phillipsburg School District has indicated that it disagrees with the EEOC decision that states "there is reasonable cause to believe that respondent has discriminated against [the] charging party on the basis of religion and retaliation."
Sasser and Liberty Institute are thrilled with EEOC's decision as it is an indication that "the EEOC is taking religious liberty seriously and they are going to enforce the law."
"This sends a message to the school district that their natural allergic reaction to religion is misplaced, and not only is it wrong, but its also an egregious violation of the law," Sasser said.
The Phillipsburg School District is considering an appeal of the decision in court.
"Without explaining it reasons, the EEOC re-opened its investigation," Howard Minkoff, an attorney representing the school district, wrote in a statement to LehighValleyLive.com. "Although the EEOC's investigation is now complete, the EEOC did not personally interview any employee of the school district and conducted what the district believes was a cursory review of the evidence."