High School Teacher Sues Her District After They Tell Her to Stop Proselytizing to Students

Joelle Silver, a science teacher in the Cheektowaga Central School District in New York who also doubles as the faculty sponsor for the school’s Bible Study Club, has no idea where to draw the line between being a public school teacher and being a representative of her church.

Prompted by a student’s complaint to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, here’s a portion of a letter (PDF) Silver recently received from her superintendent:

… the District received a complaint letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (‘FFRF”), dated June 7. 2012, concerning your classroom. I arranged for you to be provided with a copy of the complaint letter shonty after I received it. I also initiated an investigation into the allegations contained in the FFRF’s June 7th letter, which was carried out by my administrators. That investigation confirmed a substantial number of the allegations made by FFRF.

Wow. What did they find in her classroom?

You’ll want to sit down for this…:

  • A poster reading: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin… wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” – Psalm 51:2,7
  • A poster reading: “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; My God, my strength, and whom I will trust.” – Psalm 18:2
  • A poster reading: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” – Psalm 19:1
  • A poster reading: “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted, His splendor is above the Earth and the heavens.” – Psalm 148:13
  • A poster reading: “Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love.” – 1 Corinthians 16:13-14.
  • A drawing of three crosses on a hill, depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • A poster featuring this quotation by President Ronald Reagan: “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… lf ever we forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
  • A “Prayer Request” box covered with Bible verses and other religious messages
  • Sticky notes on her desk that have even more religious messages.
  • A “humorous” poster of an antique phone that reads: “It’s for you… Good morning. This is God… I will be handling all your problems today. I will not need your help, so have a good day.”

Silver also invited Dr. Luther Robinson, MD to speak to her Anatomy & Physiology class last spring and his slides included two with Bible verses on them — something Silver would have known about since she told the school she reviewed his materials in advance.

Furthermore, as the Bible Club’s sponsor, Silver broke the district’s rules by allowing the club to put the Prayer Request box in her classroom. Religious clubs (and atheist clubs, for that matter) must remain extra-curricular at all times.

Oh, that’s not all. A follow-up letter from FFRF indicated Silver tried to guilt-trip the student who ratted on her:

The student also said that Silver told students in the anatomy class that whoever had reported her to the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked integrity and character and was akin to someone who had cheated on the final exam, [FFRF attorney Rebecca] Markert wrote in her follow-up letter.

Back to Superintendent Dennis Kane‘s letter:

… 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, and to advance Judeo-Christian principles.

(Can you imagine what the response would have been like if Silver were Muslim, with Koran verses lining her walls? Or an atheist, with quotations from Christopher Hitchens greeting students each day? It’s only in situations like these, with a Christian proselytizer, that we even have to debate whether or not this should be allowed.)

Kane told Silver she needed to immediately take down the Christian propaganda and refrain from being anything-but-neutral with regard to religion. She could wear a cross on a necklace if she wanted, but that’s about it.

I think Kane was being incredibly generous by only giving her a warning. She broke so many rules, it’s a wonder she still has a job.

It all leads to one question: How on earth is Silver a science teacher? How did Silver respond to the overwhelming amount of evidence showing her promoting Christianity to her students?

First, she removed the items from her classroom.

Then, she filed a federal lawsuit against the district (PDF) with the help of the American Freedom Law Center.

Among her arguments:

  • One of the school’s social workers has a picture of a rainbow on her door with a message that says “Acceptance practiced here” and no one tells her to take that down. (So telling gay students they won’t be treated like shit is the same thing, apparently, as preaching the Gospel in the classroom.)
  • The school is illegally pressuring her to stop being the faculty sponsor for the Bible Club. (Actually, they’re telling her they will remove her as faculty sponsor ONLY if she continues to promote the group’s beliefs in her science classrooms.)
  • The sticky notes with Bible verses on her desk are entirely personal and not an example of proselytizing. (If this were the only violation, I would argue she could get away with it. But, together with the other examples, it just shows her inability to keep her religious beliefs to herself.

In summary, she knows what she’s doing is wrong, but she’s going to argue that other teachers do it, too… even though that’s not actually true. The district isn’t anti-Christian; they’re anti-getting-sued. They’re asking of Silver the same things they would ask of anyone else promoting their faith on the taxpayer’s dime.

But Silver thinks she’s being persecuted (because, you know, Christians have it *so* rough):

Silver said, “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. 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.

No one died so that Silver could preach to students who have no choice in the matter.

You don’t need a judge to decide this matter. All you need to do is ask a fifth-grader who read page one of the Constitution.

(Thanks to James for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.