2d Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Christian Teacher’s Constitutional Claims Arising From Directive to Remove Biblical Quotes and Religious Messages From Classroom

Bible quotes and religious messages have no place inside public school classrooms.

That is, basically, the takeaway from Silver v. Cheektowaga Cent. Sch. Dist., No. 16-102, 2016 WL 6584914 (2d Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (Summary Order), which affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff teacher Joelle Silver’s claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In her complaint, plaintiff – a science teacher who identifies herself as a Christian – alleged that the defendant violated her rights by, e.g., issuing a “counseling letter” that “directed Plaintiff to remove small sticky notes that she placed on her desk that contained inspirational Bible quotes and religious messages.”

In affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s First Amendment free speech claim, the Second Circuit ruled:

First, Silver alleged that the Cheektowaga Central School District had violated her First Amendment right to free speech by imposing the restrictions outlined in the School District’s “counseling letter,” which included a direction to remove various religiously-themed postings in Silver’s classroom. However, this Court has stated that schools may direct teachers to ‘refrain from expression of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings, and that schools have a constitutional duty to make certain … that subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion. Further, when government endeavors to police itself and its employees in an effort to avoid transgressing Establishment Clause limits, it must be accorded some leeway. Here, the restrictions outlined in the counseling letter fell within the scope of the “leeway”[].

The court next turned to plaintiff’s First Amendment Establishment Clause claim:

Second, Silver alleged that the School District had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by restricting her religious expression, thereby convey[ing] an impermissible, government-sponsored message of disapproval of and hostility toward the Christian religion. [F]or challenged government action to satisfy the neutrality principle of the Establishment Clause, it must (1) have a secular … purpose, (2) have a principal or primary effect … that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. Here, the restrictions imposed by the School District had the secular purpose of, and primary effect of, avoidance of the perception of religious endorsement, and they did not excessively entangle the School District in religious matters. Therefore, we uphold the District Court’s dismissal of Silver’s Establishment Clause claim.

Finally, in upholding the dismissal of plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection claim, the court explained:

Third, Silver alleged a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, on the basis that she was prevented … from expressing a religious message in a forum in which personal, non-curricula [sic] speech of School District teachers, faculty, and administrators is permitted because Defendants found Plaintiff’s religious views and viewpoint unacceptable. However, in light of our conclusion that Silver’s First Amendment claims fail, we conclude that her equal protection claim, grounded in her alleged right to post or otherwise use the materials referenced in the counseling letter, fails as well.

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