Law & Courts

Law Update

April 16, 2003 5 min read
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Utah Supreme Court Rejects Lawsuit Targeting Lesbian Teacher

The Utah Supreme Court has handed a victory to a lesbian teacher who has faced a series of legal battles over the past six years.

Wendy Chandler, formerly known as Wendy Weaver, is a teacher in the 23,000- student Nebo district. In 1997, district administrators removed her as the girls’ volleyball coach and told her not to discuss her sexuality at school. She sued, and a federal district judge ruled in 1998 that the district could not restrain her speech about her sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, in 1997, a group called Citizens of Nebo School District for Moral and Legal Values filed a lawsuit alleging that Ms. Chandler was unfit to teach under Utah law because as a lesbian she was presumably violating the state’s law against sodomy. The group also alleged that she had improperly given psychological tests to students and made comments in class disparaging the Mormon Church.

A state trial court threw out the group’s lawsuit in 1999, and in an April 4 decision, the state supreme court unanimously held that the Nebo community group had no legal standing to challenge Ms. Chandler’s status as a teacher.

“Disciplinary action against a teacher, whether it involves warnings, reprimands, suspension or revocation of certification, or termination of employment, must be taken before the only bodies authorized to act in this regard: the local school district, the [Professional Practices Advisory] Commission, or the state board of education,” the court said.

Ms. Chandler’s case has been viewed by many teacher and gay-rights advocates as a battle against what they consider the antiquated notion that gay teachers are unfit for the classroom.

“In this case, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that the courts couldn’t properly address and resolve what is essentially an ideological and cultural debate,” said Stephen Clark, one of Ms. Chandler’s lawyers.

Matthew Hilton, a lawyer for the Nebo community group, said that the group had filed an administrative complaint about Ms. Chandler with the state several years ago, but that no action was taken, pending the outcome of the group’s lawsuit. The state office of education has asked him to resubmit the complaint if the group still wants to pursue administrative action, he said.

Mr. Hilton noted that his group’s view that a state law against sodomy could be the basis for declaring a homosexual unfit to teach could be upset by a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Texas law against sodomy. One possible outcome of Lawrence v. Texas is that the high court could strike down the laws against sodomy in all 13 states that still have them.

During the March 26 oral arguments in that case, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is on record for upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws, wondered whether striking down the Texas law would “also mean that a state could not prefer heterosexuals to homosexuals to teach kindergarten.”

—Mark Walsh

National-Origin Bias

A federal appeals court has reinstated the lawsuit of an Alaska teacher of Lebanese birth who claims that a district’s refusal to hire her permanently was based on national-origin and religious discrimination.

Nada Raad, a Muslim born in Beirut, Lebanon, who is an American citizen, earned college degrees in Illinois before returning to her native country. In 1989, she immigrated to Alaska with her husband, a university instructor. She worked as a substitute and a temporary full-time teacher in the 15,000-student Fairbanks North Star Borough district for two years before seeking various permanent positions there.

Ms. Raad’s classroom evaluations were all positive, but some administrators made references to her Middle Eastern accent, with one noting on an interview report that she needed to improve her “articulation of English.” In 1993, after she was turned down for a permanent job teaching middle school science, Ms. Raad went to the district’s offices to speak to the superintendent. When an aide said the superintendent did not meet with unsuccessful job applicants, Ms. Raad replied that it was “a matter of life or death,” and that she was very angry and did not want to “blow up.”

The district staff interpreted her remarks as a bomb threat and called police. Ms. Raad was escorted from the building, but no charges were filed. The district later told her that she would get no permanent or substitute teaching positions in the coming school year.

Ms. Raad sued the district in 1997 under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on religion and national origin, among other factors.

A federal district judge in Anchorage granted summary judgment to the school district in 2000. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously on March 27 that Ms. Raad’s suit should be allowed to go to trial.

“It would be reasonable for a finder of fact to infer that the district used her accent as a pretext to deny her a full-time position because of her national origin,” the court said. Regarding the perceived bomb threat, the court said Ms. Raad had presented evidence that “staff members may have misunderstood what she said because of their preconceptions regarding her religion and national origin.”

—Mark Walsh

War Games

The Duke of Wellington is credited with saying that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Whether boys at the famous English boarding school have ever played an informal game called “war” is less clear.

War Games: The Duke of Wellington is credited with saying that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Whether boys at the famous English boarding school have ever played an informal game called “war” is less clear.

At Division Avenue High School in Levittown, N.Y., however, a 1998 round of the game led to a lawsuit against the district. The game is none too complicated, as described in court papers: Two teams play by “throwing tennis balls at the members of the opposite team in an effort to hit them.”

Six high school baseball players were taking a break from indoor batting practice when they struck up a game of “war” one afternoon. After 10 or 15 minutes of horseplay, student Jason Schneider was struck in his left eye by a tennis ball thrown during the game.

Mr. Schneider sued both the student alleged to have thrown the ball, Daniel P. Sambriski, and the 7,800-student Levittown Union Free School District in a New York state trial court. After the judge rejected summary judgment to the defendants, the district settled its part for an undisclosed amount.

But Mr. Sambriski appealed and won a dismissal of the case last month. A panel of the appellate division of New York State Supreme Court ruled on March 3 that Mr. Schneider had no case because of a legal doctrine called “assumption of risk.”

“The ultimate purpose of the game was to hit the other players with the balls,” the court said, “and the risk of being hit anywhere on the body was inherent in the game and was within the risk assumed.”

—Mark Walsh

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