PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. — The Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that a New Jersey school district violated the rights of a substitute teacher when it fired the man for giving a middle school student his Bible during the lunch period.
As previously reported, Tutka, a longtime substitute teacher for the Phillipsburg School District, was placed under possible disciplinary action in 2012 after it was discovered that he had given his personal copy of the Bible to a student at Phillipsburg Middle School.
Tutka states that one day in October 2012, while the students he was overseeing lined up at the door to be dismissed for lunch, he commented to the last student in line, “Remember, the last shall be first.” He explained that over the next few weeks, the student asked several times where the saying came from, and approximately the seventh time, Tutka pulled out his personal Bible and gave it to the student as a gift.
However, upon learning of the incident, the Phillipsburg School Board claimed that Tutka violated school policy. The matter was discussed during a board meeting in November 2012, where a number of area residents showed up to support the substitute teacher.
Tutka acknowledged to reporters weeks later, however, that he had received a concerning letter from Superintendent George Chando, which outlined his recommendation that Tutka face a 90-day suspension beginning in January. The letter explained that the suspension was warranted as Tutka violated two school policies: one, that he not distribute any religious literature on school property, and two, the requirement that he “be neutral in [his] approach and avoid using [discussions about religion] to advance or inhibit religion in any way.”
Tutka’s name was also removed from the substitute teacher’s list because of the incident.
In January 2013, the board again addressed the matter during its monthly meeting and decided to go much further than the 90-day suspension — it fired Tutka.
Later that year, Tutka filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, but the Commission dismissed the grievance over what it called a lack of evidence. According to attorneys with the Texas-based Liberty Institute, while Tutka had until May 15th to provide evidence, which he submitted on May 14th, he later received a letter from the EEOC dated May 10th dismissing his claim over a lack of information.
Therefore, the Liberty Institute requested a reconsideration of the matter as the former substitute teacher asserted that the decision was unfair. Tutka was granted his request.
The EEOC has now issued its final determination, finding that the Phillipsburg School District indeed acted inappropriately in firing Tutka, and conversely determining that it was instead the school district who failed to provide sufficient evidence to support its actions.
“Evidence of record … confirms that the nexus behind respondent’s scheduled meeting was the distribution of religious material and planned disciplinary action following a failed attempt to terminate the charging party upon recommendation to the school board,” it wrote.
“Given these circumstances and absent adequate documentation to support its defense, the Commission must conclude that more credibility should be assigned to the charging party’s contention that religion and retaliation played a factor in his termination rather than respondent’s proffered defense that legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons were used,” the government entity continued. “[T]here is reasonable cause to believe that respondent has discriminated against [the] charging party on the basis of religion and retaliation.”
The EEOC then ordered that the two parties move into the conciliation and resolution phase.
“This is a great indication that the EEOC is taking religious liberty seriously and that they are going to enforce the law, and in this case make sure Walt’s rights are protected,” the Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser told conservative reporter Todd Starnes. “This sends a message to school districts that their natural allergic reaction to religion is misplaced, and not only is it wrong, but it’s also an egregious violation of the law.”