Thousand Oaks, California — Two former elementary school teachers and a once-secular school in California are fighting a complicated legal battle in the courts regarding the dismissal of the teachers for refusing to provide proof of their Christian faith.
Little Oaks Elementary School is a pre-k through 5th grade institution owned by Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks. The church purchased the school in 2009, and last year, required all teachers to complete a form affirming their faith in Christ as a part of the renewal of their teaching contract. However, two of the teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, refused to submit the document, which in addition to outlining a statement of faith, mandates that a pastor attest to their church attendance and Christian beliefs.
Because the women would not obtain the required pastoral reference as a part of the renewal process, they were both dismissed from their jobs. One of the teachers had been hired prior to Calvary Chapel’s purchasing of the facility.
The women then threatened to sue the school after being fired. However, before they could file the lawsuit, the school lodged a complaint of their own in federal court, requesting that the women be prohibited from filing in the state courts. Calvary Chapel and Little Oaks Elementary School says that it wants the case to proceed in federal court and not at the state level.
At issue in this case is whether the school has the right to fire employees for not meeting religious standards if it is not registered as a not-for-profit entity. While owned by a church and not used for the purpose of commercial profit, Little Oaks Elementary School has not filed for non-profit status.
“We’re a Christian school,” Rob McCoy, pastor of the church and headmaster of the school, told the Ventura Star. “We were coming to the point where we were establishing a Christian curriculum. We wanted to make sure teachers subscribed to that faith.”
Because the school is not officially non-profit, Serrano and Guevara are pointing to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which they believe asserts that an employee cannot be dismissed because of their beliefs — or lack of them. They state that the school’s decision to dismiss them for failure to complete the form was an illegal act of discrimination.
“They did not believe they should be required to obtain a pastoral reference in order to continue their employment,” Dawn Coulson, attorney for the teachers, wrote in a letter to officials at Calvary Chapel.
However, the leadership of Little Oaks Elementary School states that the Constitution grants religious entities the free exercise of religion, and contends that the Christian-owned school should be allowed to set its own criteria for who it will and will not employ.
“The question is ultimately, do the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law?” explained Richard Kahdeman, attorney for the school and church.
There remains much disagreement over the matter.
“For-profit businesses, if you will, have to play by nondiscrimination rules,” Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told reporters.
“Religious schools have to be allowed to make faith-based decisions,” contended local attorney Alan Reinach. “That’s basic to religious freedom.”