VENTURA — A Southern California Christian school is suing two former teachers who had threatened a lawsuit over the school’s practice of demanding proof of faith from its employees.
The teachers lost their jobs at Little Oaks School in Thousand Oaks last year after refusing to provide a statement of faith and a reference from a pastor. After they threatened litigation, school leaders filed their own lawsuit in federal court Wednesday, the Ventura County Star reported.
The school and its owner, Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks, say their right to hire teachers who share their beliefs is protected by the California Constitution, the U.S. Constitution’s right of the free exercise of religion, and civil rights laws.
The school is incorporated as a for-profit entity.
The teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, are citing the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits religious discrimination with exemptions that do not include for-profit religious groups, the newspaper said.
“The question is ultimately, do the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law?” Richard Kahdeman, a lawyer representing the church and school, told the Star.
Lawyers for Epps, Yong & Coulson, the firm representing the teachers, said the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act has been upheld in hundreds of cases in state and federal courts. In a prepared statement obtained by the newspaper, they portrayed the school’s lawsuit as a desperate attempt to “avoid the consequences of their illegal and discriminatory practices.”
The church purchased the school, which previously had no religious affiliations, in 2009. Church leaders said the school is operated not as a profit-generating entity but as a spiritual arm of the church. About 130 students in preschool through fifth grade are taught there.
Last year, leaders told employees they needed to provide the faith documents to renew their contracts.
“We’re a Christian school,” the Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor of the church and headmaster of the school, told the Star. “We were coming to the point where we were establishing a Christian curriculum. We wanted to make sure teachers subscribed to that faith.”
Serrano and Guevara refused to provide the documents, according to the lawsuit. Serrano, once director of the preschool, had been with the school since 2006. Guevara was hired in 2011.
“They did not believe they should be required to obtain a pastoral reference in order to continue their employment,” their attorney, Dawn Coulson, wrote in a letter to church leaders.
The teachers lost their jobs. In the letter from Coulson, they said they were prepared to sue and were asking for $150,000 apiece from the school to settle the case.
Instead of settling, church and school leaders filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, asking for an injunction that would prevent the teachers from filing their lawsuit in a different venue, the newspaper said. They wanted to make sure litigation took place in federal court.
Their suit names not only the two teachers but the law firm that represents them. It alleges the California Fair Employment and Housing Act is unconstitutional when used to restrict a religious school’s hiring practices, even if the group is for-profit.