University Faces Lawsuit for Religious Discrimination

Nov 05, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Janis Price worked for years to build a reputation as a strong, highly respected educator and a Christian. Now, she's fighting to restore her career and defend her religious views.

Christians have long found themselves the focus of persecution. What adds a twist here, though, is the entity Price is suing: her employer, DePauw University, a college founded in 1837 in Greencastle, Indiana, on Methodist principles.

That was then. The DePauw University at the center of this debate is far removed from that religious foundation.

In her lawsuit, Price contends the university, and specifically Neal B. Abraham, vice-president for academic affairs, violated her First Amendment rights and created a hostile work environment. The lawsuit stems from Price's cut in pay and responsibilities in 2001 after Abraham and the university placed her on probation and reduced her position from full-time to 75% time status. The move came after officials said Price distributed material in her classroom that promoted intolerance and created a hostile environment for students.

Janis Price had her pay, position, and career status diminished after a student complained to superiors that Price kept Christian magazines, specifically the issue shown above, in her classroom and allowed students to take them and read them.

The material at the heart of the argument: copies of Teachers in Focus magazine, from Focus on the Family. The issue which created the brouhaha contained an article about homosexual activism in the schools. Price had for many years made the magazine available to students in her classes, but hadn't required they read it.

A student, Angela Morris, complained last year to university officials about the politically incorrect magazine, but didn't voice concerns to Price beyond asking her, in class, what she thought about homosexuality. Price said in her lawsuit that she answered the question, addressing the entire class, saying, "Science teachers need to do a good job teaching science, English teachers need to teach English, and math teachers need to teach math, etc. One's sexuality is a private matter and has no place in a public school classroom." Price said that was the end of the discussion.

On May 7, 2001, Price was called before Abraham, who then informed her the student had complained. During the meeting, Abraham asked Price about her teaching practices, and questioned her about how students knew she was a Christian.

Tolerating the Intolerable

Price said Abraham pulled out the copy of the magazine article and read parts of it aloud. He asked her several times whether she believed what the article said, and each time she said she did. According to Price's lawsuit, she asked Abraham how she was to tolerate others' beliefs if her own beliefs weren't to be tolerated. "We cannot tolerate the intolerable," Abraham said.

On July 16, Price was called back into Abraham's office. According to her lawsuit, Abraham said her administrative duties (Certification Officer and Director of Field Experience) had been reduced; she would no longer be an instructor at the school; her future responsibilities in public schools would be monitored; her position as director of the AV laboratory had been reassigned to another person; she was placed on probation; and her pay would be cut by $10,401, in line with her position being reduced from full-time to 75% time.

Abraham accused Price at the meeting of "professional intolerance" and the "deliberate creation of a hostile environment."

In the time since, Price charges in her suit, she has suffered financially from the pay cut, lost her career status by the termination of her teaching duties, and lost standing at DePauw and in the State of Indiana by her termination as Chair of the Unit Assessment Systems Review Committee.

Now, Price is having to play a waiting game. No trial date has been set yet, and "the university has tried, in every way it possibly can, to slow things down," she said. "They filed a motion to dismiss the case, which has been denied. They're digging their heels in; they do not want this to go to court. And if it does, then they want to stretch it out such that I run out of money before they do."

Price said she and her husband, Geoff, have found comfort in the outpouring of moral support they have received from the community and from several of her former students.

By Jason Collum