Friday, April 12, 2013

New Jersey Teacher Fired For Giving a Student a Bible

I read the other day about Walt Tutka, the substitute teacher in Phillipsburg, New Jersey who claims he was fired for giving a student a bible. Tutka has filed a complaint with the EEOC in Newark.

In the complaint, Tutka claims he was standing by a door waiting for a group of students to enter the school. When the last student trailed in, Tutka quipped “The first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first,” a reference to Matthew 19:30.

Tutka says that within a few days the student had approached him “repeatedly” about the verse, wanting to know where it came from. Tutka told the student that he was quoting the bible and then asked whether the student had a copy. The student said he didn’t, and Tutka offered the student a personal copy Tutka carried with him.

This incident occurred in October. Tutka states that a few days later school Superintendent George Chando told Tutka that Chando would be recommending Tutka’s termination for this apparent heinous deed. But it wasn’t until January that the ax finally fell. At that time, according to Fox News, Tutka was fired for “distributing religious literature on school grounds” and for violating a policy that “directs teachers to be neutral when discussing religious material.”

By all reports, Tutka was a good teacher whom the students liked. How is the school's action in anyone's best interest? 

Did Tutka force the bible on the student? Shove it in the kid's duffle bag, and then harangue the poor child every day about why he’d better accept Jesus as his personal savior or else?

I’m told there was a time when people considered the bible a great piece of literature, actually worthy of being taught in schools, and now a teacher gets fired for giving a copy to a student who expresses curiosity about it?

Come on.

Assuming the school actually has these policies, would a reprimand have been too lenient a response? 

I’m going to say the same thing now as when I wrote about the little girl who was told by her school to remove the word "God" from her poem because one crazed parent complained that the mention violated the separation of church and state—I hope there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Tutka’s complaint says that he was fired in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for employees' sincerely held religions beliefs unless doing so would be an undue hardship for the employer. He’s also thrown in a retaliation charge (which is de rigueur these days; I don’t know why employers keep forgetting that).

Attorneys, please feel free to weigh in, but I don’t see a violation here, unless Tutka can provide some evidence that the school didn’t actually have these policies or didn't enforce these policies consistently. And I do believe the school is free to create and enforce policies such as these. But, like I said, I’m not an attorney. However, had I been the HR pro at Tutka’s (former) school (provided anyone had asked me), I’d have said, “Come on guys, this is stupid,” or words to that effect. We need good teachers. Let's not fire them for dumb stuff.

What do you think? Did Tutka cross the line? Or has the Phillipsburg School Board gone bonkers?

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