BUFFALO, N.Y. – A New York federal district judge ruled on Tuesday that a public school was justified in forcing a Christian science teacher to remove personal Bible-themed materials from her classroom.
As previously reported, Joelle Silver works as a high school teacher for the Cheektowaga Central School District near Buffalo. Silver, a Christian, displayed several inspirational posters and artworks in her classroom, including a number of Bible verse references and Christian materials.
One poster in Silver’s classroom included a quote from former President Ronald Reagan:
“Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience,” the quote said. “… Without God there is a coarsening of the society; without God democracy will not and cannot long endure … If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
Other religious materials in the classroom included a drawing of three crosses on a hill, four small posters featuring verses from Psalms, and several sticky notes with biblical citations stuck on Silver’s desk.
In 2012, representatives with the Freedom From Religion Foundation learned of Silver’s Christian materials and swiftly complained to school district officials. Soon afterward, Silver received a warning letter from the school superintendent advising her to cleanse her classroom of the Christian materials.
“I … want to caution you that your Constitutional Rights, including those you enjoy under the First Amendment, are not without their limitations,” the superintendent warned in the letter.
“It is my conclusion that you are using your publicly funded classroom to express your personal religious beliefs to your students,” he wrote, “including but not limited to your apparent belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible as the word of God.”
The superintendent ordered Silver to remove all of her religious materials or else face the termination of her job at the school.
“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 superintendent instructed. “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 contents to your students or their parents or guardians.”
After receiving the threatening letter, Silver decided to challenge the school in court, alleging that the superintendent’s orders were a violation of her religious freedoms. With help from the American Freedom Law Center, Silver filed a lawsuit which argued that the Bible “guides her actions, including her actions as a public school teacher.”
“I believe that my First Amendment rights were violated last June when I was asked to do some things regarding taking some posters down and to censor my speech in the classroom,” Silver told reporters. “As a Christian and as an American I feel it’s incredibly important to fight to protect the rights that people have died to give them.”
The lawsuit also pointed out that the same school district freely allowed a social worker at the school to display a variety of “gay rights” materials both inside and outside her office, including materials from the Human Rights Campaign—a pro-homosexual, anti-Christian organization. Unlike Silver’s situation, the school district did not reprimand the social worker for displaying the materials.
“[The school district’s] restrictions have had a chilling effect on [Silver’s] personal, noncurricular speech,” the lawsuit contends. “As a result of [the] restrictions, [Silver] is unable to discuss her faith or discuss other subject matter from her Christian point of view while on School District property. Indeed, as a result of [the school’s] draconian restrictions, [Silver] must keep her faith hidden at all times.”
Two years after the Cheektowaga Central School District initially commanded Silver to remove the Christian materials from her classroom, a district judge ruled this week largely in the school district’s favor, arguing that the display of Christian materials was inappropriate. In a 42-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Foschio said the school district did “not infringe any liberties” by ordering Silver to remove her materials.
Robert Muise, co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, said in a press release that the Tuesday court ruling is “dripping with hostility to religion.”
“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,” Muise stated.
“Indeed, this case should remove any lingering doubts as to whether our government, which includes the judiciary, is hostile to religion,” he continued. “But I can assure you that this fight is far from over.”
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