Federal court upholds non-renewal of proselytizing teacher
An Illinois community college did not violate the constitutional rights of a devout Christian teacher in its cosmetology clinical program when it decided not to renew her contract due to her proselytizing of students, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled on September 19. The problems with Ms. Martha Louise Piggee came to light when a gay student objected to anti-gay Christian pamphlets that Piggee urged him to read.
Writing for the court, Judge Diane P. Wood reports that Jason Ruel was a student in the cosmetology program at Carl Sandburg College, a public community college in Galesburg, Illinois. Piggee, a part-time faculty member, was his instructor for several classes.
“At some point,” Wood wrote. “Ruel became aware that Piggee was a Christian and she realized that he was gay. On September 5, 2002, Piggee placed two pamphlets in Ruel’s smock during clinical instruction time, as he was preparing to leave for the day. She told him to read the materials later and invited him to discuss them with her.”
When Ruel looked at the pamphlets, he discovered they were crude, anti-gay diatribes, entitled “Sin City” and “Doom Town.” The pamphlets strongly suggested that gays were sinful and those who tolerated them were as well, that gays will pollute the blood supply with HIV-positive blood unless people increase funding for AIDS research, and that gay men are out to rape boys. One of the pamphlets graphically illustrated the Sodom and Gomorrah story from the Bible as an anti-gay allegory.
Ruel wrote to college administrators to complain about Piggee. When they investigated, they discovered that other students had complained in their course evaluations that she was injecting religion into the classroom. After an administrator questioned Piggee about her distribution of the pamphlets, she approached Ruel and accused him of trying to get her fired, but he told her he had complained through proper channels and cut short the conversation. The administration concluded that Piggee had created a hostile environment for Ruel and sent her a letter warning her to stop proselytizing in class. At the end of the semester, they informed her that her contract would not be renewed.
Piggee sued the college and various administrators, claiming that her constitutional rights had been violated. District Judge Joe Billy McDade granted the defendants’ motion for pre-trial summary judgment, finding no valid constitutional claim, and Piggee appealed.
The unanimous three-judge appeals court panel agreed with McDade. Although public college instructors do have free speech rights under the First Amendment, the court found that in the context of the classroom, a school has a legitimate interest in protecting students against sexual harassment (which is how the college had characterized its hostile environment finding). Perhaps more significantly, academic freedom in the context of a cosmetology program does not extend to discussions of religion.
Piggee had argued that the clinical program, which is actually a beauty salon operated by the college, was really more of a retail establishment than a classroom. The court disagreed, likening it to a legal clinic run by a law school or a teaching hospital affiliated with a medical school program.
In this context, Wood wrote that the college “was entitled to insist on a professional relationship between the students and the instructors.”
Wood wrote “Piggee’s ‘speech,’ both verbal and through the pamphlets she put in Ruel’s pocket, was not related to her job of instructing students in cosmetology. Indeed, if it did anything, it inhibited her ability to perform that job by undermining her relationship with Ruel and other students who disagreed with or were offended by her expressions of her beliefs. The record reflects that her actions disrupted Ruel’s education: he testified that he ‘avoided her like the plague,’ and that he was unhappy that he still had to go to a class that she taught, and that he felt unsafe because she was present.”
Although Ruel was the only student who filed a formal complaint, other students were disturbed by Piggee’s frequent religious proselytizing, a review of student course evaluations showed.
“This evidence shows, at a minimum, that the college reasonably took the position that nongermane discussions of religion and other matters had no place in the classroom, because they could impede the school’s educational mission,” Wood wrote.
The court rejected Piggee’s argument that the school’s harassment policy was an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, noting that a school can restrict the speech of its instructors to content appropriate for the educational setting.