Cheektowaga, New York — A teacher that was ordered to cleanse Christianity from her classroom under threat of termination has filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge what she believes in an unconstitutional mandate.
Joelle Silver works as a high school teacher for the Cheektowaga Central School District near Buffalo, and is a born again Christian. In June of last year, Silver received a letter from the district, signed by the superintendent, commanding her to keep religion out of the classroom.
One of the items that she was told to remove was a poster that quoted from 1 Corinthians 6:13-14: “Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love.” Silver was also mandated to take down a printout of a quote from former President Ronald Reagan, which read, “Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience . … Without God there is a coarsening of the society. Without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure . … If ever we forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
In addition, a prayer box that sat in the room as part of Silver’s role as the faculty adviser for the student Bible club was also to be nixed. It had been decorated by students and allowed others to place their prayer requests inside so that the club members could pray. According to Silver’s legal representation, the district “pressured Silver into resigning as faculty adviser for the student Bible Study Club, which was formed pursuant to the Equal Access Act.”
“Consequently, if you choose to continue monitoring the Bible Study Club next school year, you must carefully re-examine [district policies], so that you can better protect that club from being disciplined and possibly banned,” the letter admonished. “Under no circumstances should you participate in the club’s meetings or activities. Likewise, under no circumstances should you permit any club activities that could be interpreted as being promoted or sponsored by yourself, or the larger district for which you work.”
The teacher had also kept sticky notes discreetly inside her desk for her own personal encouragement, which contained either Bible verses or inspirational messages. The district suggested that that Silver ensure that she keep the items secret by hiding them in a folder.
“If you need to be able to occasionally glance at inspirational Bible verses between classes during the course of the day, I suggest that
you keep such material in a discreet folder that only you will have access to,” the letter stated. “You may keep such a folder in a drawer of your desk, so long as you take precautions not to share it or disclose its content to your students or their parents or guardians.”
However, the items weren’t the only matter that the district asked Silver to eradicate. They also ordered her to cleanse her speech of anything that referenced God.
“Except for wearing religious jewelry, such as a cross, I am also directing you to refrain from all other forms of communication with students during the school day (whether verbal, email, texting, written, etc.) that would conflict with your duty to show complete neutrality toward religion and to refrain from promoting religion or entangling yourself in religious matters,” the letter continued.
Silver was then warned that if she did not comply with the mandates outlined in the letter, that she would be fired.
“Please be advised that your failure to follow any of the above directions will be considered insubordination, which could lead to serious disciplinary consequences, including the termination of your employment,” the district threatened.
According to indications, Silver complied with the correspondence, but believes that the district is infringing upon her constitutional rights. She turned to the American Freedom Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for help, which filed a complaint on her behalf Thursday in federal court.
“The school district’s hostility toward Silver’s Christian faith was blatant, particularly in light of the fact that the school district permits other teachers, faculty and administrators to display in their classrooms and offices various messages and other items that reflect the individual teacher’s personality, opinions, and values, as well as non-curricular messages relating to matters of political, social, or other similar concerns,” the organization wrote in online post yesterday.
“The school district’s restrictions on Silver’s speech are overtly hostile toward religion and convey an impermissible, government-sponsored message of disapproval of the Christian faith,” it continued. “Indeed, these actions send a clear message to Silver that she is an outsider, not a full member of the political and school community because she is a Christian.”
The American Freedom Law Center asserts that teachers should not have to stop being a Christian the moment they enter the workplace.
“As a devout Christian, Silver’s faith defines who she is as a person, and it guides all aspects of her life, both public and private. She does not cease being a Christian because she is employed by the school district,” the organization outlined. “As a Christian, Silver is inspired by the Word of God, which guides her actions, including her actions as a public school teacher.”
The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against the district’s mandates as outlined in the letter.
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