Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

Two fired preschool teachers in Thousand Oaks: not Christian enough?

Two teachers at Little Oaks School refused to provide a 'pastoral reference,' and they were fired

There was nothing in their employment record to suggest that veteran preschool teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara deserved to be fired in 2012 by Little Oaks School.

The two were described in court records as "capable" and "competent," with "no discipline history."

In 2009, Little Oaks was bought by Calvary Chapel, a Thousand Oaks church led by the Rev. Rob McCoy, a conservative Christian with political aspirations.

Over the next few years, the school transitioned from a secular tradition to an explicitly religious one: Mandatory chapel service. Prayers before snack and lunch. Art projects revolving around religious themes.

Teachers were expected to go along with the program. Neither Serrano nor Guevara had a problem with that.

But teachers were also expected to provide the school, starting in 2012, with a "pastoral reference," essentially a religious loyalty oath, signed by each teacher's pastor.

Serrano, 55, a Protestant, and Guevara, 65, a Catholic, were not regular church-goers. They refused to provide the letter, and were fired in August 2012.

"She did not have a problem doing the things they wanted at school," Serrano's husband, Moy, told me. "But they were forcing her to go to church on the weekends. We don't need to go to church every Sunday to believe."

How can anyone disagree with that?

Yet on March 23, a judge in Ventura County ruled the school was within its rights to fire Serrano and Guevara.

They helped teach their charges about religion, he ruled, therefore they functioned in a ministerial capacity. Ministers who work for churches or religious groups are not entitled to civil rights protections. In 2012, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of "ministerial employees" to include teachers.

If that seems crazy, just look around. We live in a country where the definition of religious freedom seems to be going off the rails, where religious conservatives claim their rights are being trampled even as they daily trample the rights of others, or gin up faux religious controversies. (War on Christmas, anyone?)

Last year, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court said an employer's religious objection to providing insurance coverage for certain kinds of birth control trumps a female employee's desire or need for it. Around the country, conservative religious legislators have used their power to deny women access to abortion, a basic healthcare right.

I know I am not alone in taking comfort in the backlash that greeted Indiana after its legislators passed a disingenuous law, ostensibly to promote religious freedom, that might have opened the door to discrimination against gays.

There are many places in the world where Christians are oppressed.

The United States of America is not one of them.

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Before Serrano and Guevara could even file a wrongful-termination lawsuit, the school sued them in federal court.

The school said the teachers should not be allowed to sue in state court for wrongful termination, as that would violate the church's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. But you can't sue someone in federal court simply because they might first sue you in state court.

U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee dismissed the case, calling it "legally baseless" and "patently absurd," and said the claim was "nothing more than an attempt to harass" the teachers.

"I think they filed in federal court to try to get a jump on this freedom-of-religion litigation that's going on across the states," Dawn Coulson, attorney for the fired teachers, told me. (Indeed, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul spoke to McCoy's congregation just after the federal suit was tossed. "The issue of this church and the school segues with the national debate we're having over Obamacare," Paul told the Thousand Oaks Acorn. "It fits nicely together.")

Coulson believes the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed a closely held for-profit corporation to claim an exemption from federal law based on its religious beliefs, colored this case.

"Frankly," she said, "this case was a dead bang winner until Hobby Lobby came out."

"Hobby Lobby doesn't directly affect this case," said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "but it signaled that the court is likely to rule in favor of religious employers to the extent that there is a gray area."

Was there a gray area here?

"Case law offers no bright shining lines to determine when a teacher's primary purpose is that of serving the spiritual and pastoral mission of the defendant church," wrote Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh, finding for the school. "It is instead a case-by-case analysis."

I tried without success to reach McCoy, a Republican who lost a bid for the state Assembly in November and is seeking a seat on the Thousand Oaks City Council. During the Assembly primary, information about this case was circulated to reporters by McCoy's Republican foes. He won despite strong GOP establishment opposition.

The school's legal victory will surely burnish his credentials as a rising star among conservative Christians, who love to characterize themselves as besieged by a secular world.

Which is ironic, given that McCoy orchestrated the firing of two capable, competent Christian teachers.

I guess they just weren't Christian enough for his taste.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

@AbcarianLAT

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