A New York public school teacher who advised a school Bible Study club has filed a civil rights lawsuit against her school district after she was forced to remove all religious content from her classroom — including a quote from former President Ronald Reagan.
Joelle Silver, a veteran teacher in the Cheektowaga Central School District in western New York, said she received a “counseling letter” signed by her superintendent that ordered her to remove all religious-themed items from her classroom or else she could be fired.
The eight-page letter informed the teacher that “your rights to free speech and expression are not as broad as if your were simply a private citizen.”
Among the items that had to be removed were a poster with an inspirational Bible verse superimposed over an American flag and inspirational messages she had written on sticky notes kept on her desk, according to court documents obtained by Fox News.
The school district also ordered her to remove a quote from former President Ronald Reagan which read in part — “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
The teacher, who advises the school’s Bible Study club, was told she had to remove a “prayer request box” that was displayed by student members of the group.
Robert Muise is the co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center and Silver’s attorney. He told Fox News he’s never seen such an egregious example of religious hostility in a public school.
“It’s like they’re treating those posters and inspirational sticky notes like its some sort of pornography,” he told Fox News. “I find that offensive.”
He said the sole reason they are attacking his client is because she is a devout Christian.
“When they launched the investigation, the literally went through her classroom with a fine-tooth comb and removed anything that had anything to do with Christianity,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Ms. Silver does not cease being a Christian nor does she shed her constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
Muise filed the lawsuit in federal court. He said his client received a letter saying that if she failed to comply with the school district’s religious cleansing she would face “serious disciplinary consequences, including the termination of her employment.
The Cheektowaga Central School District told television station WIVB they had received a complaint from the Freedom From Religion organization on behalf of a student. The group threatened to sue unless the teacher’s classroom was cleansed of any religious material.
“In this case, you have two interest groups that are diametrically opposed to each other and you have to make certain decisions,” Supt. Dennis Kane told the television station. “And if one side doesn’t sue you, the other side probably will.”
Silver, who is a devout Christian, was also told that if she needed to look at inspirational messages for her personal use she would have to “keep such material in a discreet folder” that only she would have access to. She was also instructed to never disclose the contents of the folder to parents or students.
Muise said the district also forbade her from any form of communication with students “that would conflict with your duty to show complete neutrality toward religion and to refrain from promoting religion or entangling yourself in religious matters.”
The AFLC found it ironic that the district allows teachers to promote non-Christian displays in their classrooms – including one teacher who promotes gay rights.
“Our nation was founded to promote religious liberty,” AFLC co-founder David Yerushalmi said. “Yet, for years our public schools have been bastions of religious hostility.”