Florida school district reinstates teacher

Last week I wrote about Jerry Buell, a Florida teacher of 26 years who got suspended for expressing his opposition to  gay marriage on his Facebook page.  A former student of his school (but not of Buell) filed a complaint about alleged hate speech, which prompted an investigation by Mount Dora High School and the Lake County Schools district.  After the Liberty Counsel and the ACLU got involved, the district retreated — somewhat:

Jerry Buell, the Lake County teacher who was suspended after making anti-gay comments on Facebook, [returned] to the classroom Thursday after being reinstated by Lake County Schools Superintendent Susan Moxley. …

Buell met with Moxley for about an hour before her decision was announced. A “written directive” was placed in his file, said school district spokesman Chris Patton.

Patton would not elaborate on the directive, or say if Buell had been reprimanded. That information will be available in 10 days.

The school district started investigating Buell last week after receiving copies of a Facebook post in which the teacher said he “almost threw up” when hearing news about New York’s legalization of gay marriage. He compared gay unions to a “cesspool” and said they were a “sin.”

The case has drawn national attention, with both the American Civil Liberties Union and the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel backing Buell’s right to speak his mind. The Liberty Counsel represented Buell throughout the investigation and at Wednesday’s meeting.

He’s not completely out of the woods, though.  Lake County Schools will continue investigating what they say are “church-state separation violations” in Buell’s curriculum:

Mihet said the school district questioned statements on Buell’s webpage and syllabus that expressed his belief in God.

On his school webpage, Buell wrote that he tries to “teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.”

His syllabus also offered this warning to students: “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ’cause I ain’t changing!” On a separate document, he also said the classroom was his “mission field.”

Mihet said the webpage was since removed and Buell has been instructed to remove some parts of his syllabus.

Was this webpage on the school’s site, or Buell’s?  If Buell had that on the school’s website, then the district has a point — but also a big problem in disciplining Buell for it.  Didn’t anyone review Buell’s entry before publishing it to the site?  The act of publishing it as it was before this investigation gives an implicit approval that will make it difficult to punish Buell later.

Buell teaches at a public school, which doesn’t limit his free expression of political religious speech outside of it.  Inside, though, is a different matter.  The school has the authority to control what exactly is taught in the classroom.  Declaring in a syllabus that the course will teach “God’s truth” is not just problematic, but also a little arrogant.  Which interpretation of that truth did Buell teach? Catholic? Lutheran? Baptist? Mennonite?  Muslim? His own?  It’s pretty easy to see how many problems that kind of declaration can cause among students and the community.  Those truths are better taught in churches and homes rather than public schools; if parents wanted religious instruction for their children in classrooms, they would send them to parochial schools and not public schools.

Still, after the avalanche of well-deserved bad publicity for their attack on Buell for his Facebook page, I doubt that the district and school will go farther than a reprimand for the syllabus and the webpage, especially since they effectively participated in that latter speech with Buell.