Principal bans teacher from attending church event; superintendent steps in after legal pressure

Students seen in a high school classroom.
Students seen in a high school classroom. | (Photo: Reuters/Stephane Mahe)

A school superintendent in the midwest has overturned a principal’s decision to forbid a teacher from attending a church event during nonschool hours because the event was also to be attended by two students.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group that advocates for First Amendment right, says that it has come to the defense of a teacher at an undisclosed high school in the United States after she was told by the school principal that she could not attend an event organized by her own church.

According to the legal group, the principal in question told the teacher in December that attending a church event in which two students at the school would also be present would violate some sort of “fraternization” policy.

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The two students were attending the church event because they also attend the same church as the teacher.

At the beginning of the month, a representative of the Orlando-based nonprofit called the school district asking for the principal’s policy to be tossed out. The legal group explained that the policy is “unconstitutional” on grounds that it prevented the teacher from exercising her religious freedom rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The names of the school, teacher and principal involved in the matter have been left undisclosed by Liberty Counsel to protect the privacy of the teacher.

“It makes no sense to have a policy like that,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver told The Christian Post in an interview Tuesday.  “Let’s say a teacher is attending a church and students decided to also attend the same church; does that mean that the teacher has to leave that church and go someplace else?”

Staver noted that in some communities, it could be hard for a teacher to find a church where there are no students included in the congregation. He also asked how teachers are supposed to know whether or not students will be at an event they plan to attend.

“What if you go to a Christmas event in December, for example, or some other event or even church service on a Sunday or a choir?” he posed. “It makes no sense and it is unconstitutional to impose that kind of rule.”

Staver asserted that teachers have a First Amendment right both on campus and off campus.

“During nonschool hours outside of school, they have the same rights as any other citizen,” he stated. “They can engage in First Amendment-expressive activity, especially in church, without the school’s intervention. This is actually government interfering in the free exercise of religion and speech and the free association guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Staver said that Liberty Counsel’s correspondence with the school district led to a prompt reversal of the principal’s policy.

“The superintendent correctly reversed the principal’s decision to ban teachers from attending the same church events as students,” Staver said in a statement. “Teachers acting in their individual capacity after school have the same rights as any others who are not teachers.”

This is not the first time that Liberty Counsel has come to the defense of that teacher.

About a year ago, the same principal tried to prevent the teacher from leading an after-school Bible club that had the approval and permission of parents of the students who wanted to take part. Even without the teacher, one student offered to lead the group as a student-led club. But that idea was also rejected by the principal.

The teacher eventually contacted Liberty Counsel, which sent a demand letter to the school superintendent on her behalf. The principal’s decision, in that case, was also overruled by the superintendent.

“I think the first time we could give the [principal] the benefit of the doubt and that the principal acted out of ignorance and misinformation when she said the teacher couldn’t be a part of a Bible study even though parents provided permission,” Staver said.

“As wrong as it is and unconstitutional as it is, maybe the [principal] had good intentions. But when it happens again within a year and it involves something that is common-sense wrong yet alone constitutionally impermissible to impose, I now believe that this principal has some animus toward religion and Christianity in particular. … I think the principal has some other kind of motive that is hostile to Christianity.”

Staver, who has in the past represented high-profile clients such as controversial Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis,  warned that actions like the ones taken by the principal could have led to a lawsuit if they were not addressed by the superintendent.

“Some people might not be willing to do a demand letter before they file suit,” Staver said. “The school might find themselves a defendant in a lawsuit over this principal’s actions. Now it is a recurring pattern and they need to do something to hold her accountable.”

Recently, Liberty Counsel intervened in a Nebraska school district after an elementary school principal sent out instructions telling teachers to stay away from using Christmas-related messaging and activities in the classroom. The teacher even warned that teachers could not give out candy canes, asserting that they symbolize Jesus.

After Liberty Counsel’s intervention, the principal’s guidance was overturned, she was placed on administrative leave and eventually resigned.  

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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