New York City teacher removed for leading children in prayer wins grievance

Friday, July 10, 1998

Mildred Rosario...
Mildred Rosario, a former New York school teacher, is consoled and interviewed as she leaves a news conference
The New York City school board has agreed that it improperly dismissed an untenured, substitute teacher for asking her children to accept Jesus Christ.

However, Mildred Rosario will not be asked back to teach at the Bronx middle school she was fired from late last month. Rosario, member of a Pentecostal church in East Harlem, lost her job after the principal and the district's school board ruled that Rosario violated the separation of church and state by leading her sixth-graders in prayer. Rosario was fired two weeks before her contract with the district expired.

Represented by her union, the United Federation of Teachers, Rosario filed a grievance with the school board claiming her dismissal was improper and that she should receive compensation for the final two weeks of her contract. The district issued a grievance decision yesterday agreeing with the union and granting her two weeks' pay.

“Our grievance was sustained by the hearing officer and Rosario will receive full compensation,” Neill Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the union, said. “Rosario, however, was only reinstated for purposes of salary. She won the grievance, but was fired.”

The union argued before the district's grievance officer that the principal and school board failed to investigate Rosario's actions properly and then fired her claiming she was an imminent threat to students, teachers and staff.

Rosenfeld added that Rosario had exhausted all possible remedies before the school board and that any further challenges would have to be heard by federal or state courts. Rosenfeld added that arguments could be made that Rosario's actions did not subvert the separation of church and state.

Conservative religious organizations such as the Christian Coalition and congressmen such as House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, have bemoaned Rosario's dismissal as unjust and unnecessary.

DeLay, in a letter to New York Gov. George Pataki, called Rosario's firing an “injustice” and said the teacher was only trying to comfort “grieving sixth-graders.” Rosario was prompted to discuss her religious beliefs when a student asked her about the death of fifth-grader that had been announced over the school's intercom. Rosario responded that the deceased student was in heaven and then asked students if they wanted to accept Jesus as their savior.

“Since when is a prayer to offer comfort to grieving sixth-graders so dangerous that it warrants the removal of this teacher without even a warning?” Delay asked.

In an interview with The New York Times, Rosario defended her actions, saying she had no regrets “because God is going to give me the victory.” Rosario has obtained legal counsel from a Bronx attorney and the conservative Virginia-based Rutherford Institute.

Kim Hazelwood, a staff attorney with the Rutherford Institute, said that a formal lawsuit had not been filed yet. She did discuss possible claims if one is ultimately filed, though.

“Our main contention is that the school board treated her differently because of the religious aspects,” Hazelwood said. “We will look at the due-process issues and whether or not her free-speech and free-exercise of religion rights were violated.”

Hazelwood added that the group was also considering a “novel” theory that argues Rosario's students had a right to have their questions answered.

Although Hazelwood says her organization does not “want teachers teaching their own brand of religion in classrooms,” it also wants to respond to the “zealous” enforcement of the First Amendment's establishment clause by federal courts.

“We are also trying to ensure that the free-speech and free-exercise rights of teachers and students are also zealously” protected, she said.