Mar 25, 2015

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) should not have ruled in favor of a New Jersey substitute teacher who was fired for giving a Bible to a student, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a letter submitted to the EEOC’s New York District Office today, Americans United argued that the Phillipsburg School District could legally terminate Walt Tutka’s employment if the school acted for the purposes of avoiding a church-state violation.

Tutka, who gave a Bible to a student during school hours, alleged religious discrimination and protested his termination by filing a complaint with the Newark Area Office of the EEOC. The Newark Area Office then ruled in his favor, finding that he had a legitimate discrimination complaint.

“I’m shocked that the EEOC ignored the case law in this area that requires public schools to abide by the separation of church and state,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The school district in this case appears to have done what the law requires. The EEOC needs to reconsider.”

AU points out that public school districts are legally permitted to terminate employees who promote religion in class to avoid liability for a violation of the First Amendment.

“The courts have uniformly held that the distribution of Bibles to public-school students during the school day—whether by school officials or outsiders, and whether in class or during non-instructional time—violates the Establishment Clause,” AU’s letter to the EEOC notes.

“Even if the EEOC believes that the School District acted harshly when it fired Mr. Tutka, the nature of the School District’s adverse action would not give rise to a right that does not otherwise exist,” the letter adds.

Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United, said the Phillipsburg district could have been sued if it allowed Tutka to proselytize in class.

“There’s no ambiguity in the law here,” Khan said. “Courts have ruled repeatedly that public schools are for teaching, not preaching. Tutka has no right to distribute Bibles to students.”

The letter urges the EEOC to consider existing law as it resolves Tutka’s complaint. It was prepared by Khan and Madison Fellow Natacha Lam.