CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — An appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling siding with a New York school district that instructed a teacher to cleanse Christianity from her classroom under threat of termination.
The Buffalo News reports that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals this month rejected the arguments of high school biology and anatomy teacher Joelle Silver that the Cheektowaga Central School District violated her rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.
As previously reported, several years ago, Silver, who identifies as a Christian, had displayed several inspirational posters and artworks in her classroom, including a number of Scripture 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,” it read. “… 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 materials included a drawing of three crosses on a hill, four small posters featuring verses from Psalms, and several sticky notes with biblical citations adhered to the back of Silver’s desk.
In 2012, representatives with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) learned of Silver’s Christian materials and complained to 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,” he warned. “It is my conclusion that you are using your publicly funded classroom to express your personal religious beliefs to your students, 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 face the termination of her employment.
“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,” he 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 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 that argued that the Bible “guides her actions, including her actions as a public school teacher.”
The Center furthermore opined in statements that in telling Silver to keep the sayings hidden, the district treated the Bible like it was a “form of obscenity.”
“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.”
In 2014, a federal district court ruled 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 the texts.
Therefore, the Center appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, and presented oral argument on Oct. 25.
“Public school officials restricted Ms. Silver’s personal, non-curricular speech and effectively ordered her to cease being a Christian while she is on school property in direct violation of the First Amendment and the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Center Co-Founder Robert Muise said in a statement prior to the hearing.
But this month, the court upheld Foschio’s ruling. Silver’s case might now go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As previously reported, in 1828, just 52 years after the nation’s founding, Noah Webster, known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, wrote, “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. … No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
Webster, a schoolmaster, wrote the quote in his preface to the nation’s first dictionary, which often cited Christianity and the Bible.