High school teacher sues district alleging he was fired for anti-Mormon beliefs

Monday, February 8, 1999

A high school history teacher in Utah has charged a school district with firing him because of his religious beliefs.

Charles Larson, represented by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal lawsuit against the Provo City School District in late January, arguing that after a book he wrote about Mormon scriptures was published in 1992, officials at Independence High School harassed and later fired him. Larson's book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, published by the Institute for Religious Research, is primarily an interpretation of the Book of Abraham, a collection of Mormon writings.

The ACLU alleged in the lawsuit that Larson was fired from the high school in 1993 solely because Principal Gregory Hudnall did not like Larson's interpretation of Mormon scripture. Larson said he was told that he was being let go because his department was being restructured and budget cuts were needed.

The state civil rights group claimed that in 1994 Larson discovered “that his termination had been based on a false pretext,” and that there had never been budget cuts or restructuring of the school's history department. The suit also stated that Larson “learned that he had been targeted for elimination” because of Hudnall's disapproval of his book. According to the suit, Larson's book was written with a secular perspective of Mormon scriptures and concluded with a chapter “reflecting Larson's traditional, orthodox Christian beliefs.”

Also, the suit charged that “shortly after the book's publication,” Hudnall “learned of the book's existence and that it contained an expression of Larson's Christian beliefs which were not in accordance with the beliefs of Hudnall in the teachings of the Mormon Church,” and then fired Larson.

In fall 1994, Larson filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging he was fired because of his religious scholarship. Last year, the EEOC issued a finding that the school district had subverted a federal anti-discrimination law.

“Testimonial evidence confirms that [Larson] was harassed and intimidated when his Principal learned he had published a book in the spring of 1992, which was considered anti-Mormon,” wrote Charles D. Burtner, EEOC district director. “Subsequently, [Larson] was terminated under the guise of job elimination, and an uncertified female intern was hired to perform his duties.”

Burtner concluded his finding by urging Provo City school officials and Larson to meet and try to reach a settlement. School officials refused to rehire Larson.

The ACLU has included Burtner's finding in its complaint before the federal court in Utah.

According to the ACLU, the Provo School District “deprived Mr. Larson of his constitutional rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and equal protection.” The ACLU asked the judge to force Independence High School to rehire Larson, pay him back wages and compensate him for emotional pain and suffering.

Ray Briscoe, a longtime school administrator in Utah and a consultant for the state's 3 R's Project (Rights, Responsibilities and Respect) — a state initiative to train public school teachers to deal properly with religious expression — said that some secular studies of Mormon scriptures are often labeled as anti-Mormon.

“There is within the Mormon faith groups or individuals that attempt scholarly examinations of documentation that is not scripture and much of it is quite anti-Mormon,” Briscoe said. “For example, we (Mormons) believe the Book of Mormon came literally from the ground, but there are people who say it could not have happened. You cannot preach such opposition, however, and be a member of the Mormon Church.”

Briscoe added that “it is inappropriate to take a person's job away if the only reasoning is his religious opinion.” In all “likelihood, however, there is more to it than that,” he said.

Calls made to Provo City School Superintendent Michael Jacobsen were not returned.

Stephen Clark, legal director for the Utah ACLU, said that teachers in Utah have been terminated for “a variety of discriminatory reasons,” and that “we are now representing someone fired because of a scholarly publication that he did in his off time.”

Clark also said that Larson wanted to ensure through his lawsuit that similar discriminatory practices would not destroy other teachers' careers. “It is important (that) teachers be free to live their lives as they choose and pursue scholarly and religious studies outside the mainstream,” Clark said.