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Losing my religion

Forced removal of religious symbols violates teacher’s freedom of religion

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013

Updated: Friday, January 18, 2013 16:01


If a teacher’s religious preference isn’t being forced on his or her students and doesn’t detract from the education process, should it still be hidden? Cheektowaga Central School District says yes.

Joelle Silver, a high school biology and anatomy teacher in the district, was issued a letter to remove posters and sticky notes with religious messages on them, as well as other religious symbols, from her classroom or she would be terminated.

Among the materials Silver was asked to remove was a poster with a verse from I Corinthians, “Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love” superimposed over images of schoolbooks and an American flag. She had also posted quotes from Ronald Reagan reading “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 request came after a single student complained to the school and said he or she felt isolated.

Since the threat, Silver, represented by the American Freedom Law Center, has taken the issue to court and charged district officials with violating her First Amendment rights. The separation of church and state has reached a near-hostile level, and if Silver was not forcing her religion down her students’ throats, she has a case.

The organization fighting against Silver is the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest organization advocating for non-theists. There’s confusion when an organization that forces freedom from religion gets to advocate for the school but not a person fighting for freedom of religion. Rebecca Markert, attorney for FFRF, told The Buffalo News employees of public schools “are prohibited from professing religious beliefs and imposing them on students.”

Was Silver ever intentionally pushing her religion, though, or was she displaying it for her own purpose? The teacher allegedly made a religious reference in a class, to which the same student complained, but if the references were not recurring or frequent, there is no reason to be offended by it.

The argument is a teacher has an obligation to be leave her faith at the door the moment she heads to work even if she is neutral in her teaching methods. Silver’s attorney, Robert J. Muise, argued the officials “essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property.”

There is an obvious stigma in the country around Christianity, one associated with intolerance and hate, and we’ve gotten to the point where the religion (and all religions, for that matter) is completely taboo. We’re worried about students being forced to believe in something instead of teaching them to question things and make their own decisions, no matter what is around them. And because of that, our students are offended just looking at a religious symbol.

The argument goes both ways, no matter the symbol or the side. In 2012, Tennessee journalism teacher Richard Yoakley was forced out of his high school after expressing support for a couple of controversial student articles – one being an account of being an atheist in a Christian school that was censored by the school director and the other an article about a gay student. The latter of the two was censored because the school director wanted to protect the school from “disruption,” but Yoakley believed it was good for discussion and students should learn to think for themselves. And for that, he was required to leave.

In the quest for tolerance, intolerance is often prevalent. As long as a teacher – specifically Silver – is not forcing her students to inherit her beliefs, then she should be free to hold onto her religion just as the students should be free to discuss it and question it.



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Wed Jan 23 2013 10:28
Dear Editor: You have a law school on campus, correct? Then maybe you'll want to get their analysis of the public school's legal case that it presented to Science teacher, Joelle Silver, last June. Here is the legal background copied word for word from the Cheektowaga school superintendent's letter to Ms. Silver. I removed her home address. The letter goes on for a number of pages, and you can still go to WIVB's website if you want to read or download the whole thing.June 22, 2011HAND DELIVEREDJoelle Silver***Re: Inappropriate Religious Expression in Your ClassroomDear Ms. Silver:This counseling letter touches upon your rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, especially as they relate to the expression of your religious beliefs and the competing requirement that government (made up of government employees) maintain a separation of church and state. I am sure that you are familiar with the First Amendment, at least to some degree. Nevertheless, I want to begin this letter with a review of essential principles. Effective in 1791, the First Amendment consists of a mere forty-five words, addressing the weighty subjects of religion (including the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause), speech, press, assembly, and petition. It reads:Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The scope and import of these words has been greatly affected by a subsequent amendment and Supreme Court decisions. For example, the Amendment's proscription against "establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" applies to each of the states and their local governments by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) and a 1947 decision of the Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1. The decision in Everson holds that the First Amendment applies to the states, and that the Establishment Clause forbids not only practices that "aid one religion" or "prefer one religion over another," but as well those that "aid all religions."Since Everson, the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") as requiring the separation of church and state, and applying to the states and their subdivisions, including school districts. Indeed, the Establishment Clause requires that government pursue a course of "complete neutrality toward religion," and not promote religion or entangle itself in religious matters. (Emphasis added). Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985). See, also, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992); Bd. of Educ. of the Kiryas Joel Village Sch. Dist. v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994); and McCreary Cnty. v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005). In addition to the limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, I also want to caution you that your Constitutional Rights, including those you enjoy under the First Amendment, are not without their limitations. For example, inciting a riot, using fighting words, or falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is not constitutionally protected speech. "The protections the First Amendment affords speech and expressive conduct are not absolute, and we have long recognized that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution." (Emphasis added). Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003) (upholding a state law banning cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate).More significantly, as an employee of a public school district, you are a public servant, working for a municipal corporation that is a unit of local government in New York State. As such, your rights to free speech and expression are not as broad as if you were simply a private citizen. Illustrating this point is the Supreme Court decision of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), which held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." (Emphasis added).Consequently, "When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom." (Emphasis added). Id. With the benefit of this background information, you will perhaps be better prepared to understand how a public school teacher's violation of the Establishment Clause may lead to very severe discipline, including termination of employment. That ultimate penalty was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, with jurisdiction over New York State, in the case of Roasario v. Does 1-10, 36 F.Appx 25 (2d Cir. 2002). There, the court held that a school district lawfully...
Tue Jan 22 2013 08:42
I have a suggestion for the Editor of Spectrum. Do some real reporting. Take a closer look at the special interest law group that has taken Joelle Silver's case and sued the Cheektowaga Central School. Some of your readers may appreciate learning about their Muslim-baiting fund-raising tactics.

Here are some choice examples of hate propaganda from the website of the self-proclaimed 'American Freedom Law Center'.

"For good or ill, the battle for America's soul is being waged in the courtrooms across America, pressed forward by secular progressives and sharia-advocating Muslim Brotherhood interests."

Really - the sharia-advocating Muslim Brotherhood? Pressing forward with, oh my God,
secular wage battle in the courtrooms across America? Thank goodness we have the 'American Freedom Law Center' to protect us from the Muslim jihad of lawsuits. Until now, I had no idea that Muslim jihad was being waged in the courtrooms of the good ole USA.

Could these be the same nut jobs that keep on insisting that President Obama is secretly a Muslim?

"AFLC engages the enemy with offensive 'lawfare' to defend our national sovereignty and to fight stealth jihad in all of its forms."

Lawfare! Stealth jihad! Too funny - you just can't make this stuff up. But in case you haven't yet figured out where the AFLC stands on Muslims, here they go again:

"Offensive 'Lawfare.' Sharia-adherent Islamists are waging a war against our Nation and its Judeo-Christian
principles reflected in our Constitution. AFLC will aggressively attack this agenda in courts all across the country."

I guess we can all sleep easier knowing that the American Freedom Law Center would never
come to the defense of a Muslim teacher wishing to post verses from the Koran in her public school classroom.

"AFLC prosecutes cases to advance and defend religious liberty..." -- Yeah, right. But only if you're a right-wing Christian. Anyone else gets LAWFARE. RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT.

Oh yeah - when not waging "Lawfare" on the enemy, the AFLC specializes in "constiutional law." Yep! That's how these high tech goof-balls spell constitutional. See their webpage -

Apparently their spell check button isn't as important as the 'donate your last paycheck
here' button.

The AFLC = a bunch of money-grubbing, homophobic, Muslim-baiting, low-life lawyers.
Wrapping yourselves in the American flag won't hide that stink.

Mon Jan 21 2013 11:26
This is case is not about a 'God bless' you when little Sally sneezes. Nor is it a case about one or two posters, and passing references to religion.

Go to and you'll be able to read the letter that the school superintendent wrote to this public school teacher.

As you read the list, everyone should think about what classrooms would look like if every teacher and all their students were given the right to post their religious beliefs.

And then ask yourself how many lawyers would school districts have to hire to litigate whether a student or teacher had sincere religious beliefs or was just posting something to be disruptive. ('Should we let Johnny continue putting up his Scientology posters, or do we think he's just pretending to be a Scientologist this week?')

The Establishment Clause is not just the law. It's also common sense.

Mon Jan 21 2013 10:58
The teacher in question is a science teacher in a public school. Her religious posting have ZERO to do with the curriculum she is paid to teach.

Certainly she is entitled to believe what she wants to believe, but I'm curious where the Editor(s) of the Spectrum get the notion that she should be allowed to post her relgious beliefs on the wall of a science classroom paid for entriely by tax dollars?

And if a Science teacher has that right, don't all her students?

Finally, does the opinion of the Editor(s) only apply to a public high school. Maybe you should do a thought experiment on what your own public unversity campus and classrooms would look like if everyone gets to post their personal religious beliefs on the wall....

Sun Jan 20 2013 05:10
"we've gotten to the point where the religion (and all religions, for that matter) is completely taboo."

A bit hyperbolic, don't you think? Do you genuinely believe that the United States could have an Atheist president anytime within the next 15 or so years? I don't. In the court of public opinion having a belief in a god, specifically a Christian god is far more important than it should be.

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