Former public school teacher who led students in prayer challenges firing

Tuesday, July 7, 1998

The substitute public school teacher fired last month for asking children in her Bronx classroom to accept Jesus as their savior has filed a grievance challenging her dismissal.

Mildred Rosario, represented by her union, the United Federation of Teachers, told the chancellor of the New York City Board of Education late last week that her firing was improper. The principal of the Bronx middle school, with the support of the board education, fired Rosario after receiving a complaint from a Jehovah's Witness about Rosario leading her class in prayer.

According to Principal Leroy Johnson and the school board, the incidents in Rosario's classroom were triggered by the announcement over the school intercom that a fifth-grader had drowned. When a student of Rosario's asked where the deceased student was, Rosario said he was in heaven. She then proceeded to lead the class in prayer, asking if anyone wanted to accept Jesus and laying hands on some children.

Johnson said he fired Rosario because her actions ran afoul of the separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that public school teachers were barred by the establishment clause from encouraging students to recite prayers composed by state officials. Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in Engel v. Vitale, noted that when “the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”

The school district's action, although supported by legal precedent, has sparked vociferous claims by local and federal politicians that her firing was unwarranted. In particular, Republican congressional leaders have dubbed the dismissal an example of radical secularism run amuck in public schools.

Rosario, an untenured teacher, had only two weeks before her contract with the district expired.

Neill Rosenfeld, spokesman for Rosario's union, said that the union would continue to stand behind Rosario to ensure that “her due process” rights are not infringed. Rosenfeld said union representatives argued before an officer in the chancellor's office that Johnson had fired Rosario improperly.

“In essence, she was fired under an inapplicable provision of her contract,” Rosenfeld said. “She was fired under a provision that gives the board the right to fire someone who represents an imminent danger to students, teachers and staff. We argued that she did not represent an imminent danger to anyone.

“If the teacher had been passing out drugs to students or had come to school with a knife, then the section would be applicable,” Rosenfeld said.

Unfortunately, the grievance procedure will not give Rosario and her supporters a chance to support the constitutionality of her actions, Rosenfeld said.

“I think there is a strong argument that even if Rosario led the students in prayer, a proper response by the principal would have been a warning to her not to do it again, instead of firing her,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld added that even if Rosario's firing is overturned by the school district, the officials at the Bronx school may simply choose not to re-hire her. Instead, the district would be forced to pay Rosario for the two weeks she had left on her contract, he said.

Calls to the school district's offices regarding the grievance hearings were not returned.

Colby May, director of the office of governmental affairs at the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and educational firm devoted to religious-liberty rights, said that the school board and principal “overreacted” to Rosario's actions.

“I think as more facts come out, we see the situation was isolated in nature and involved a reaction of students to the death of an individual,” May said. “I think it is sad that the principal and school board responded in the way they did. Their actions appear to based on an atmosphere of hostility toward religion.”