Judge Rules Against Public High School Teacher Who Was Promoting Christianity in the Classroom

In early 2013, we learned that Joelle Silver (below), a science teacher in the Cheektowaga Central School District in New York who also doubled as the faculty sponsor for the school’s Bible Study Club, had 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 Silver 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 shortly 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?

  • 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 wasn’t 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.

That warning was incredibly generous. In most cases, a teacher who broke that many rules would be out of 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 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 knew that what she was doing was wrong, but instead of fixing her own mistakes, she argued that other teachers were just like her… even though they weren’t.

The district wasn’t being anti-Christian; they were anti-getting-sued. They asked of Silver the same things they would have asked of anyone else promoting their faith on the taxpayer’s dime.

But Silver felt she was 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.

Now, after more than a year and a half, a judge has finally ruled against her. Kind of…

The decision given Tuesday by a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York dismissed part of the motion given by the Christian teacher.

Judge Leslie G. Foschio argued that Silver’s lawsuit… could not proceed on the basis of her rights being violated when they removed the Christian items.

Boom! Her rights weren’t violated at all. She was breaking the law by pushing her Christianity onto her students.

The decision, however, also said the lawsuit could proceed on the basis of selective enforcement of the rules:

Accordingly, Defendants’ motion, insofar as it seeks qualified immunity for Defendant Kane should be GRANTED as to the First Amendment Claims, and the Equal Protection Claim pertaining to Plaintiff’s display of religious-themed materials in her classroom, but should be DENIED as to Plaintiff’s Equal Protection Claim based on alleged selective enforcement.

I don’t buy the idea that Silver was treated unfairly. While administrators were right to go after a teacher who overtly promotes Christianity in the classroom, they hardly need to criticize a teacher who puts up a picture of a rainbow to promote acceptance of all students.

In any case, that’s not the result the right-wing group AFLC wanted. They wanted the judge to say Silver’s religious rights were being violated and they’re going off against her as if she’s some biased anti-religious judicial activist:

Robert Muise, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, commented: “Similar to the School District’s censorship of Ms. Silver’s speech, the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation is dripping with hostility to religion.”

Muise continued: “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. Indeed, this case should remove any lingering doubts as to whether our government, which includes the judiciary, is hostile to religion. But I can assure you that this fight is far from over.

Of course, these are the same people who would go batshit crazy if a non-Christian teacher ever did anything remotely similar to what Silver did…

There’s no hostility to religion here. There’s only an administration that’s looking out for the best interests of the students, regardless of their beliefs, and themselves. Maybe Silver just didn’t know any better, but you’d at least expect her lawyers to realize what the legal boundaries are and how badly Silver crossed them. If they can’t recognize that she went overboard, then they’re part of the problem.

You want to know why so many of us roll our eyes at Christian Right claims of “religious persecution”? There’s your answer.

(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)

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.


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