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Public School System Can Terminate Teacher for Behavior Motivated by Religious Beliefs

    Client Alerts
  • December 21, 2007

In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit discussed the fine line between an adverse action under Title VII  In Grossman v. South Shore Public School District, a public school guidance counselor sued claiming that her employer failed to renew her contract because of her Christian beliefs and that this non-renewal and resulting termination of her employment violated Title VII and the First Amendment. and the First Amendment based upon a public employee’s religious beliefs and behavior that is motivated by religion.


When the guidance counselor started her job at a small rural school in Wisconsin, she discarded the school’s instructional pamphlets about how to use condoms and replaced them with literature about abstinence.  Additionally, the guidance counselor also prayed with students who came to her for advice and support.  After six teenage pregnancies, the public school decided that the counselor’s expression of faith was interfering with her duties, and that it was imprudent to retain a counselor who chose to substitute her advocacy of abstinence for the school’s information on contraception.  She sued, claiming a statutory and constitutional right to conduct her duties in line with her personal religious beliefs.


The Seventh Circuit found that the school’s actions in terminating the counselor’s employment did not violate her rights under Title VII or her First Amendment right to free speech.  The Court noted that public schools, unlike private institutions, are under a constitutional obligation not to abridge an individual’s freedom of speech, and cannot simply prohibit speech that they find objectionable.  In this case however, the Court concluded that the school terminated the counselor’s employment not because it took offense at her religious beliefs, but because of the effect that her conduct might have on others.  The Court explained that a public school has a right to control the school curriculum and while the counselor is certainly entitled to preach her moral convictions on her own time, she is not entitled to do so with the taxpayers’ support.


This case is the latest in a growing number of religious discrimination lawsuits pitting employers’ work rules and policies against employees’ claims that such policies are at odds with their personal religious beliefs and practices.  While employers are expected to provide reasonable accommodations of such practices where possible, federal courts remain reluctant to require tolerance of religious expression in the workplace that materially interferes with the company’s conduct of its business.  A number of religious advocacy groups have backed proposed federal legislation intended to increase employers’ responsibilities to accommodate religious practices and beliefs, but to date, these changes have not gathered sufficient Congressional support.