Southern California Christian school goes to court over religious liberty

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A Christian school in Southern California is entangled in a legal battle with two former teachers who were fired in 2012 when they refused to supply satisfactory verification of their religious faith.

The refusal came after church leaders asked employees of the Little Oaks School in Thousand Oaks to provide statements of faith along with a reference from a pastor before renewing their contracts, reports the Ventura County Star.

Preschool teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara declined to make the documents available. Serrano taught at the school since 2006 and was once in charge of the preschool. The school hired Guevara in 2011.

“They did not believe they should be required to obtain a pastoral reference in order to continue their employment,” Dawn Coulson, an attorney for the teachers, wrote in a letter at the time, according to the Star.

The teachers threatened to litigate and asked for $150,000 each from the school as a settlement. In an interesting plot twist, though, it was the Little Oaks School that filed a lawsuit last week in federal court.

The preschool and elementary school are incorporated as a for-profit entity — a critical fact. Its owner, Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks, bought the school in 2009. (Before that it wasn’t a religious school.) Church leaders told the Star they organized the Little Oaks School as a for-profit entity to expedite the transfer. Deadlines were tight, they said, and creating a tax-exempt corporation would be a more complex process.

Calvary Chapel and the school say their right to employ Christian teachers is protected under the U.S. Constitution as well as California’s constitution and California law.

“We’re a Christian school,” Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor of the church and headmaster of the school, told the Star. “We were coming to the point where we were establishing a Christian curriculum. We wanted to make sure teachers subscribed to that faith.”

McCoy added that the case could affect churches of all kinds if his side loses.

“Any for-profit company that is owned by a religious organization will not have the religious freedom to exercise their beliefs,” he said.

On the other side, the teachers claim protection under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits religious discrimination. There are some exemptions to the Act — for nonprofit religious groups, for example — but the exemptions don’t include for-profit groups, even if the groups are religious in nature.

“The question is, ultimately, do the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law?” Richard Kahdeman, a lawyer representing the church and school, told The Star.

“Religious schools have to be allowed to make faith-based decisions,” added Alan Reinach, a constitutional lawyer affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “That’s basic to religious freedom.”

Lawyers for the teachers call the lawsuit an attempt to “avoid the consequences” of discrimination. They point to a multitude of federal and state cases in which California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act has been upheld.

“For-profit businesses, if you will, have to play by nondiscrimination rules,” Joe Conn, a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Star.

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