A high school science teacher in Cheektowaga is accusing school officials of censoring her speech by ordering the removal of religious items from her classroom.
Joelle Silver, 29, complained in federal court papers that Cheektowaga Central School District officials threatened to fire her if she didn’t take down posters with religious messages, notes with Bible quotes and a “prayer request” box for the school’s Bible Study Club.
Silver, who teaches biology and anatomy and has been with the district for seven years, got rid of the material.
She then charged district officials with violating her First Amendment rights and acting hostile because she is Christian, in a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York,
But a national organization that complained to the district twice about Silver last June said the classroom postings were unconstitutional and needed to be removed.
“Public employees, including teachers, have to act neutrally with regard to religion. They cannot push any religion,” said Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit membership organization based in Madison, Wis., that promotes separation of faith and government.
Silver, who lives in Amherst, is being represented by the American Freedom Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on religious liberty cases.
Attorney Robert J. Muise maintained that constitutional violations occurred when district officials forced Silver to remove the religious materials. “They essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property,” said Muise.
Superintendent Dennis Kane said the district was caught in the middle of a dispute between “two big special-interest groups” and was likely to be sued regardless of what it did or didn’t do.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation in September sued a Pittsburgh-area school district for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument at a junior high school.
“There’s rulings that favor both perspectives on this,” said Kane. “More than anything else on this, each side wants an example.”
After consulting with a district lawyer and an attorney for the district’s insurance carrier, district officials issued an eight-page “counseling letter” to Silver, said Kane, who is named personally in the suit along with School Board President Brian J. Gould.
The lawsuit mentions the letter several times, but because of the litigation and privacy restrictions in personnel matters, Kane said he was not able to comment on its contents.
The case dates back to last June, when a student alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to a poster with a biblical verse in Silver’s class and a drawing of three crosses on a wall near her desk.
The student also reported to the organization that a guest speaker discussing genetic defects in Silver’s anatomy class had used Bible passages in his presentation and that Silver herself had referred to Adam and Eve in a discussion about the human rib cage.
The student felt uncomfortable and alienated by the religious references and materials, said Markert, who wrote a letter to Kane on June 7 asking the district to investigate and direct Silver to take down the postings.
A week later, on June 14, Markert wrote another letter informing Kane of additional religious postings in Silver’s classroom, including four posters with Bible quotes from the Book of Psalms.
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, Markert wrote in her follow-up letter.
“This student should be lauded for standing up for constitutional rights, not made to feel like an outsider and defamed by being compared to someone who cheats on exams,” Markert wrote, encouraging Kane to further investigate and discipline Silver.
Silver denied that she questioned the integrity or character whoever reported her. In a talk to her class on the final day of the school year, she said she apologized if she had offended anyone and explained that she wanted people to work together to solve their conflicts.
Muise said that Silver wasn’t pushing her faith on students.
The original poster she was told to take down contained a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love.”
The quote was superimposed over a picture of an American flag and school books.
“Is that proselytizing?” asked Muise.
The district demanded that Silver take down a posted quote from Ronald Reagan, in which the former president declares “without God democracy will not and cannot endure” and “If ever we forget that we are One nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
The district ordered Silver to remove even the small personal sticky notes with Bible quotes she kept on her desk and to keep any Bible verses in a private folder.
Muise called it “one of the most egregious examples of religious hostility I have witnessed in a public school.” Any religious reference in schools is “treated almost as if it’s some disease that has to be eradicated,” he added.
The lawsuit states that Silver’s Christian faith defines her as a person, and passages from the Bible guide her actions, including those as a public school teacher.
District policy allows teachers to display personal messages and other items that reflect their individual personalities, opinions and values, as well as messages that are not part of the curriculum but relate to political and social concerns, the lawsuit also states.
“As a result of the defendants’ draconian restrictions, plaintiff must keep her faith hidden at all times,” the lawsuit said.
But Markert said the district did the right thing.
“There’s a lot of case law that supports the district’s decision,” she said. “I don’t think the school district is forcing her not to be a Christian.”