We’re so used to hearing stories of Christian public school teachers and coaches pushing their faith on students that a new incident barely raises any eyebrows. But when a teacher is accused of discriminating against Christians, you perk up because it seems so outlandish. When right-wing news outlets begin sharing stories that sound like the plot to another God’s Not Dead sequel, you have to question how accurate it really is, because it’s not like those news outlets will do any fact-checking.
This particular incident involves Lora Jane Riedas, a math teacher at Riverview High School in Florida. According to Liberty Counsel, the group that defended Kim Davis, Riedas “prohibited at least three children from wearing Christian cross necklaces in her classroom, claiming on occasion that they are ‘gang symbols.'” (Just for good measure, in the letter to Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, they included a picture of a cross.)
Subsequent to her cross ban, Ms. Riedas singled out at least one of the students for a number of false “misbehavior” allegations. One of our student clients reports that she had just sat down in class, and placed her books on her desk, when Ms. Riedas approached her. Referencing the tiny cross necklace which was around the student’s neck, Ms. Riedas said, “I need you to take your necklace off.” Our client asked “Why?” and Ms. Riedas refused to explain, stating “That’s disrespectful; you have to take it off.” Our client did not want to be disrespectful, so she took it off, but she felt bad because she felt she was being forced to deny her faith. All of our clients are afraid to openly wear their cross necklaces in class any more.
Most of the letter, however, is just Liberty Counsel complaining about how Riedas, the sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance group, supports LGBT students and planned to participate in the Day of Silence.
Ms. Riedas’ clearly seeks opportunities to engage in GLSEN-directed classroom activism, which has called on teachers to use its “Educator Guide” to promote GLSEN’s views about homosexuality and gender confusion on “Day of Silence”…
The group also said Riedas put rainbow stickers on students’ classroom folders.
It’s just typical conservative Christian bigotry at that point. Telling marginalized students they’re loved and supported is not a violation of any law.
Here’s the problem with Liberty Counsel’s letter, though. They’ve lied so many times that, like Donald Trump, you never know when to take them seriously. Who knows if they’re exaggerating what took place in class? Who knows if the students in question misinterpreted an interaction? Who knows if this is just an attempt to bully a vocal LGBT ally?
Let’s state the obvious: students have every right to wear small cross necklaces or other symbols of their faith. They shouldn’t be distracting, of course, but there’s no reason to believe these were. If Riedas said they couldn’t, she was wrong and needs to apologize. End of story.
For what it’s worth, a District spokesperson offered this interesting detail to a local reporter:
Tanya Arja, a spokeswoman for the school district, said Eakins had received the letter and contacted Riverview High’s principal to begin an investigation.
“However, the principal says she has not received a complaint from any student or parent regarding any claims made in the Liberty Counsel document regarding this teacher,” Arja said.
So, multiple students (or their parents) complained to Liberty Counsel about what was happening… but they never even bothered contacting the principal first? Why ask a lawyer to jump in when an email or phone call may have cleared everything up in a couple of minutes?
Liberty Counsel didn’t stop there, either. In the group’s press release, they referenced “Riedas’ lesbian partner” (as if that’s relevant) who once dressed up an a nun complete with a cross.
It’s homophobia and bigotry dressed up as genuine concern for students who care so much about this issue, they didn’t even bother saying a word about it to their principal.
I tried reaching out to Riedas multiple times to get her side of the story, but she hasn’t responded. (To be fair, I’m sure she’s inundated with “Christian love” right now.)
Liberty Counsel is demanding the school prevent Riedas from getting in the way of students’ religious expression (which is a fair request, if true). They also want her to stop letting LGBT students know her classroom is a safe space for them — because I guess those students deserve constant condemnation and no support from adults — and for her to be removed as faculty sponsor of the GSA.
In order to prevent liability for civil rights violations, please confirm in writing close of business April 20, 2017, that the District will 1) prohibit Ms. Riedas from interfering with student religious expression, by banning cross necklaces, or otherwise appropriate clothing or jewelry containing religious references or symbols; 2) prohibit Ms. Riedas from promoting LGBT political activism during instructional time on April 21, or at any other time, using any of the attached ideas in GLSEN’s “guide;” 3) require Ms. Riedas to remove partisan political LGBT materials from her classroom, and remove all unrequested LGBT stickers from each student’s notebook; and 4) replace her as sponsor of GSA, and appoint a teacher of the District’s choice who can be trusted to be present at non-school-sponsored student clubs like GSA in a supervisory, not activist, capacity.
It’s interesting that Liberty Counsel never asks football coaches to be replaced after they lead or participate in prayers with students… but we’re used to their hypocrisy by now.
LC threatened to pursue legal action of these things didn’t happen, but it’s unclear if the District responded at all, much less what their investigation revealed.
For now, take this entire story with a huge grain of salt. The only side we’re hearing is the one that routinely gins up drama to serve their own self-interests. I don’t need to know the names of the students if they genuinely complained, but until I know why they didn’t contact the principal, what Riedas has to say about all this, or what the District discovered when they looked more closely at this story, there’s no reason to take any of the substantive claims seriously.