Silver v. Cheektowaga Central School District

aflc_christianspeech_bannerFor over seven years, Joelle Silver has taught science in the Cheektowaga Central School District, which is located in a suburb of Buffalo, New York.  Silver currently teaches at the High School.

As a devout Christian, Silver’s faith defines who she is as a person, and it guides all aspects of her life, both public and private.  She does not cease being a Christian because she is employed by the School District.  As a Christian, Silver is inspired by the Word of God, which guides her actions, including her actions as a public school teacher.

On June 22, 2012, Silver received a “counseling letter” from School District officials that was signed by the superintendent.  In this letter, which is now a permanent part of Silver’s employment file, the School District forced Silver to cleanse her classroom, her speech, and her actions of anything religious in nature, as if Silver’s Christian faith was an infectious disease that needed to be eradicated.

In the letter, the School District ordered Silver to remove all items of a religious nature from her classroom, including, among others, a poster with the following inspirational quote, “Be on guard.  Stand true to what you believe.  Be courageous.  Be strong.  And everything you do must be done in love. 1 Corinthians 16:13-4”  The quote was superimposed over an American flag and school books.

As part of this religious cleansing, the School District ordered Silver to remove small sticky notes that contained inspirational Bible quotes and religious messages that she kept discreetly on her desk.  Adding further insult to this egregious violation of Silver’s constitutional rights, the School District informed Silver that if she needs “to occasionally glance at inspirational Bible verses between classes during the course of the day” she should “keep such material in a discreet folder that only [she] will have access to” and only “so long as [she took] precautions not to share it or disclose its content to [her] students or their parents or guardians.”  Essentially, the School District forced Silver’s Christian faith into a folder to be kept hidden in her desk.

Sticky Notes

The School District also pressured Silver into resigning as faculty advisor for the student Bible Study Club, which was formed pursuant to the Equal Access Act.  To further this aim, the School District ordered Silver to remove from her classroom the Bible Study Club’s “Prayer Request” box, which was decorated and displayed by the club’s student members.

And to ensure that this cleansing was complete, the School District’s letter included the following order to Silver: “Except for wearing religious jewelry, such as a cross, I am also directing you to refrain from all other forms of communication with students during the school day (whether verbal, email, texting, written, etc.) that would conflict with your duty to show complete neutrality toward religion and to refrain from promoting religion or entangling yourself in religious matters.”

Finally, to demonstrate the mandatory nature of the School District’s orders, the “counseling letter” contained the following, highlighted warning: “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.”

The School District’s hostility toward Silver’s Christian faith was blatant, particularly in light of the fact that the School District permits other teachers, faculty and administrators to display in their classrooms and offices various messages and other items that reflect the individual teacher’s personality, opinions, and values, as well as non-curricular messages relating to matters of political, social, or other similar concerns.

In fact, a social worker at the high school displays inside and outside of her office various messages that promote the “gay rights” agenda, including, among many others, a poster stating, “Acceptance Practiced Here,” which is in the rainbow colors of the gay-rights movement and contains the caption, “Brought to you by your GSA and Gay and Lesbian Youth Service of WNY.”

The School District’s restrictions on Silver’s speech are overtly hostile toward religion and convey an impermissible, government-sponsored message of disapproval of the Christian faith.  Indeed, these actions send a clear message to Silver that she is an outsider, not a full member of the political and school community because she is a Christian.

Ironically, Silver was also ordered to remove from her classroom a posted quote from President Ronald Reagan which reminds all of us of the importance of religion to our society: “Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience . . . without God there is a coarsening of the society; without God democracy will not and cannot long endure . . .  If ever we forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”

As a result of the School District’s actions, AFLC filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York on behalf of Silver, challenging the School District’s actions, which deprived and continue to deprive Silver of her fundamental constitutional rights.

CASE UPDATE (April 2, 2013): AFLC filed its memorandum of law in opposition to the School District’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

CASE UPDATE (May 6, 2013): AFLC filed its sur-reply opposition to the School District’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

CASE UPDATE (June 24, 2014): The Magistrate Judge sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York issued a mixed “report and recommendation,” recommending that the U.S. District Court Judge assigned to the case grant in part and deny in part the Cheektowaga Central School District’s motion to dismiss Silver’s lawsuit.

CASE UPDATE (July 8, 2014): AFLC filed its objections to the Magistrate’s Judge’s Report and Recommendation.

CASE UPDATE (August 13, 2014):  AFLC filed its reply in support of its objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation.

CASE UPDATE (October 23, 2014): Oral argument was held in federal court in Buffalo, New York.

CASE UPDATE (February 17, 2016): Opening brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

CASE UPDATE (February 6, 2017): We filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the high court to review this important case.

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