An Indiana public school teacher ostracized a student after he said he did not believe in God, according to a new lawsuit.
The second-grader’s parents claim that Michelle Meyer, a teacher at Forest Park Elementary School in Fort Wayne, forced the child to sit by himself at lunch for three days and interrogated him repeatedly about his personal beliefs. The complaint, published by the Washington Post earlier this week, says the trouble started when a classmate asked the child if he went to church.
The child, who’s identified by the initials “A.B.” throughout the complaint, reportedly “responded by stating that he did not go to church and did not believe in God. He also stated that it was fine with him if his inquiring classmate believed in God.”
That didn’t mollify the classmate, who said A.B. had “hurt her feelings by saying that he did not believe in God and started to cry.”
A supervisor witnessed this playground spat and brought it to Meyer’s attention. And according to the suit, she didn’t treat it like an ordinary dispute. Instead, she questioned A.B. about his beliefs and his family’s religious practices, and told him she was “very concerned” by his behavior.
Meyer then sent A.B. and his classmate to meet with another, anonymous school employee, who said the girl “should not be worried and should be happy she has faith and that she should not listen to A.B.’s bad ideas.”
The suit further alleges that Meyer forced A.B. to sit by himself at lunch for three days and forbade him from speaking to his classmates as punishment for his behavior. The reason, she said, “was because he had offended them.” A.B.’s parents say that when they complained to the school, she confirmed the punishment, as well as her justification for giving it.
So they turned to the ACLU of Indiana for help. In a statement, the group’s regional director, Leonard Goldstein, said, “A teacher has no business looking into the religious beliefs of their students. That's not part of her job description.
“And it flies in the face of our country's attitude toward religious freedom,” he added.
The Fort Wayne School District claimed in a statement that it’s already investigated the allegations and cleared Meyer of wrong-doing.
“It is clear that it is not the province of a public school to advance or inhibit religious beliefs or practices. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, this remains the inviolate province of the individual and the church of his/her choice. The rights of any minority, no matter how small, must be protected,” it added. (The parents haven’t named the district in the lawsuit; instead, they’ve sued the teacher in her personal capacity.)
But if the allegations are accurate, Meyer committed an especially egregious First Amendment violation. Public school teachers have no business questioning students about their beliefs or their family’s religious practices at all; it’s not Sunday School. Courts declared public schools secular spaces precisely in order to prevent the sort of discrimination this lawsuit alleges.
For A.B.’s sake, the lawsuit should determine what really happened, and justice should be swift if discrimination occurred. Regardless of this case’s outcome, it’s a timely reminder for public school teachers to make sure they’re following the First Amendment as they carry out their important duties.