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Science teacher sues Cheektowaga Central School District

BY: Kimberly Snickles, Cheektowaga Source | January 17, 2013

A local school district is being sued by one of their own after a teacher believed her freedom of speech was disregarded when she was asked to remove religious items from her classroom.

The issue began in June when Cheektowaga Central School District received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating that they received a complaint from a concerned student who stated that Joelle Silver, a Cheektowaga Central High School science teacher of seven years, posted bible verses in the classroom and had a drawing of three crosses near her desk.

The organization further told the district that it was unconstitutional for any school to have such Christian displays in the classroom. They also stated that Silver invited guest speakers to the classroom of who discussed religion to the students.

“It is also inappropriate to use students’ instructional time to let a guest speaker promote religion regardless of any secular purpose for the speaker. Students are a vulnerable and captive audience, and as class time is mandatory, these students had no choice but to listen to the religious message,” said Staff Attorney of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Rebecca Markert in her letter to the school.

The organization requested that the school take affirmative action in investigating the matter of which they eventually did. According to a complaint that Silver filed, she received a counseling letter from Superintendent Dennis Kane to remove all of her religious items from the classroom or she would be terminated.

In the counseling letter it stated, “Please be advised that your failure to follow any of the above directions will be considered insubordination, which could lead to serious disciplinary consequences, including the termination of your employment.”

Silver is filing suit against Superintendent Dennis Kane for violating her First Amendment rights. Attorney Robert J. Muise, American Freedom Law Center who is representing Silver said his client had every right to display her religious beliefs, classroom or no classroom.

“Not only did they have her remove everything from her classroom walls that has to do with religion but they also had her remove her personal sticky notes with personal bible quotes and forbade her from talking to students about religion. She doesn’t cease being a Christian because she was hired by the school district so we believe that is a violation of her constitutional rights,” said Muise.

Cheektowaga Central School Board President Brian Gould who is also being named in the suit could only comment briefly on the matter but said any decision the district made would have led to controversy.

“I think the school acted with their best legal advice and either way we were open to some kind of suit from one side or the other who disagreed with what we did so we will just have to see how this plays out,” said Gould.

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