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Judge rules religious school within its rights to dismiss 2 teachers

Two teachers at Little Oaks School who refused to seek a pastoral recommendation were dismissed

Just as classes were beginning in the fall of 2012 at Little Oaks School, Lynda Serrano received a letter asking her and other teachers to provide a reference from a pastor.

The Thousand Oaks school had recently adopted a Christian curriculum and wanted a pastor to discuss, among other details, how frequently teachers attended church. Pastors also were asked to comment on a teacher's faith and to endorse them as an employee at a Christian school.

Serrano, along with another teacher, Mary Ellen Guevara, refused. School officials told them their contracts would not be renewed.

The conflict led the two teachers to file a lawsuit in May 2013 alleging religious discrimination and wrongful termination.

Last week a judge ruled that the school had acted within its rights.

"The church believed it was important to verify the views of these teachers as ministers of the Gospel," said Robert Tyler, the school's attorney.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 30, 10:26 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of the attorney for Little Oaks School as Robert Taylor. His name is Robert Tyler.

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The judge determined the school had a right to compel teachers to seek a pastoral recommendation due to a protection of religious rights under the 1st Amendment.

"These teachers are quite devastated. They never signed up as ministers. They were teaching secular topics to help the kids get ready for kindergarten," said Dawn Coulson, the two teachers' attorney. "While Christians, they did not want a pastor to testify to their employer about how often they go to church, and other private religious facts."

Godspeak Calvary Chapel bought the school in 2009, and the curriculum became more faith-based over the next three years. Teachers who stayed through the transition were promised a $500 bonus.

Under the new system, teachers were required to take students to chapel once a week and lead prayer three times a day. This regular obligation for teachers categorized the school's actions under a ministerial exception, according to the judge.

"There is an exception in the federal Constitution for religious employees who qualify as ministers," said Leslie Jacobs, constitutional law professor at Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

A 2012 Supreme Court ruling gave religious organizations exemption from federal discrimination laws. The court ruled that the matter would be a case between two religious parties where the government cannot intervene.

The state court ruled that Little Oak School could claim the same exemption for its teachers, although it was not a nonprofit entity like a church.

"Federal and state laws must always make an exception in these cases," Jacobs said.

jerome.campbell@latimes.com

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