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June 23, 2006

Teachers 'Day of Silence' firing case clears a hurdle

Columbus--A central Ohio teacher who says she was fired because she is lesbian and gave a presentation on the National Day of Silence will be allowed to take her case to a jury.

Jimmie K. Beall of Galloway is suing the London City School District, west of Columbus, and its superintendent, Thomas Coyne, in federal court. The district did not renew her contract in 2003 after she taught her high school government classes about the annual LGBT demonstration.

Judge John D. Holschuh of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio denied the school district�s motion to dismiss Beall�s case on June 8.

In doing so, Holschuh, a Carter appointee, advanced a legal framework suggesting that sexual orientation is a �protected class� even though there is no Ohio or federal law prohibiting such discrimination and the district has no policy against it.

His ruling essentially makes no distinction between that protected class and the protected �suspect class� that non-discrimination laws create, at least for public employees.

Beall was hired in 2000 to teach high school Law and Society classes, psychology and American government.

As with all new hires, she was given a one year contract, which was renewed in 2001 and again in 2002.

With excellent performance evaluations by her principal Jeffery Thompson, Beall was recommended to be given a three-year contract in 2003.

Three weeks later on April 9, Beall showed her government classes a Powerpoint presentation on the National Day of Silence being observed that day, when individuals remain silent in order to call attention to LGBT harassment and discrimination.

During the presentation, Beall also remained silent.

Hearing about this, Thompson went to Beall�s classroom and according to testimony, became �visibly agitated� over the presentation, which he said was on �shaky ground� and was like teaching religion.

Two days later, Thompson withdrew the recommendation to rehire Beall. Coyne sent an email to school board members saying the non-renewal was due to what he described as her limited teaching certification.

But the email continues, �the situation is tainted by the fact that she presented a class on gay rights on Wednesday and would not talk in class because all gay persons were supposedly keeping quiet on Wednesday.�

That e-mail, and what a board member called �controversy� around the Day of Silence presentation during his deposition, was enough to defeat a substantial part of the board�s move to dismiss Beall�s case.

"Under these circumstances," wrote Holschuh, "the court concludes that plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether plaintiff's teaching contract was non-renewed, at least in part, because of her presentation on the National Day of Silence.�

Holschuh also noted the board's timing.

"In fact," wrote Holschuh, "it does not appear that anyone expressed concern to plaintiff over the limited nature of her teaching certificate until after she gave a presentation on the National Day of Silence."

"Moreover," concluded Holschuh, "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation cannot be described as objectively reasonable."

Holschuh cited the 1996 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Romer v. Evans, writing that Beall is protected because �while homosexuals do not qualify as either suspect or quasi-suspect classes, they nevertheless are entitled to at least the same protection as any other group which is subject to disparate treatment by the state.�

In Romer, the high court struck down a Colorado state constitutional amendment barring the state from passing any law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. The court ruled that animosity toward a group of citizens cannot be used to deny their right to seek protection from the government.

Lesbian and gay teachers are not generally successful in employment discrimination cases, making Beall�s noteworthy.

It is one of three cases that are similarly reasoned, none of which have been reviewed by an appeals court.

The first was the 1998 Glover v. Williamsburg Local School District in the same court as Beall�s. The second is Weaver v. Nebo School District in the U.S. District Court of Utah.

In Glover, which was cited by Judge Holschuh, the district near Cincinnati was ordered to reinstate gay elementary teacher Bruce Glover after he demonstrated that they didn�t renew his contract because of his sexual orientation, not his class management skills as they claimed. The board cited the now-overturned 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding sodomy laws in their defense, although Ohio did not have one then.

In Weaver, the board was ordered to reinstate Wendy Weaver as a contract girls� volleyball coach and pay her the $1,500 stipend she would have earned. Weaver was tenured as a psychology and physical education teacher, so the ruling didn�t affect her main employment.

With Holschuh�s ruling, the case continues either toward settlement or trial.

Michael Valentine of the Columbus law firm Reminger and Reminger represents the school board and Coyne. He said he will not appeal this decision, and will begin preparation for trial.

Erika Pearsol-Christie of Cloppert, Latanick, Sauter and Washburn represents Beall through an agreement with Beall�s union, the Ohio Education Association.

Beall now works a counselor in the Columbus Public Schools.

She is asking for $25,000 in actual damages, and punitive damages to be determined at trial, and attorney fees.

A trial date has not been set.

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