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Christian School Sparks Unprecedented Religious Liberty Battle After Firing Teachers for Refusing to Prove Their Faith

"For-profit businesses, if you will, have to play by nondiscrimination rules."

A copy of the document that teachers were asked to fill out (Photo Credit: NBC News)

A Christian school in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is locked in a heated legal battle with former teachers who are claiming that they were unfairly dismissed for failing to provide proof of their faith. The trouble began last summer when Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara were asked to submit documentation affirming their Christian views -- something they refused to do.

The two were subsequently fired, with Little Oaks School officials claiming that their decision was protected under employment provisions reserved for religious entities. The former preschool teachers then threatened the school with legal action and the Ventura County Star reports that the Christian institution responded by filing a lawsuit of its own. What has resulted is a complicated and unique legal conundrum.

To begin: Little Oaks is a for-profit entity that is owned by Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks, a local church. With school leaders citing the U.S. Constitution as well as the California constitution as corroborating their religious freedom to hire at will, Serrano and Guevara base their argument upon the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Contrary to non-profit institutions' rights, the law does not allow religious discrimination at the hands of for-profit faith groups.

NBC has more about this complex case:

Richard Kahdeman, a lawyer for the church and school, sums up this discrepancy by noting that the real questions focuses upon whether "the nondiscrimination rights of the teachers under state law trump the religious rights of the school under federal law." Despite the contention that federal law does, indeed, protect Little Oaks from discrimination claims, the law firm representing Serrana and Guevara obviously has a different view.

Attorneys for Epps, Yong & Coulson claim that the church is suing in an effort to hold up "illegal and discriminatory practices" and that past cases surrounding the California Fair Employment and Housing Act corroborate the teachers' stance.

The Star reports about the differences between state and federal law that are at play:

The state Fair Employment and Housing Act allows exemptions to religious discrimination only for nonprofit religious groups, said Annmarie Billotti, chief of dispute resolution for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

"For-profit businesses, if you will, have to play by nondiscrimination rules," said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But the Constitution and a series of Supreme Court decisions protect the rights of religious organizations to practice their beliefs, said Alan Reinach, a constitutional lawyer and leader of the Church State Council affiliated with the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

"Under federal law, you can't sue the school because religious schools are exempt," said Reinach. "Religious schools have to be allowed to make faith-based decisions. That's basic to religious freedom."

According to Calvary Chapel, the church that purchased the school in 2009, tight deadlines didn't allow for the Little Oaks to become tax-exempt -- a common feature of religiously-affiliated schools in America. Rather than a business created to churn in income, the church argues that the school is a spiritual outreach that works within the community. Currently, the school has 130 children in grades preschool through fifth.

A copy of the document that teachers were asked to fill out (Photo Credit: NBC News)

"We're a Christian school. We were coming to the point where we were establishing a Christian curriculum," explained the Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor at Calvary Chapel and the school's headmaster. "We wanted to make sure teachers subscribed to that faith."

As stated, problems with Serrano and Guevara began last year after educators were asked to provide evidence of their faith in order to renew their teaching contracts. According to court documents and the Ventura County Star, the women refused to provide the requested information. Considering that at least one of the educators was teaching at the school before the church purchased it, the case becomes even more complicated.

Little Oaks decided to take legal action after the women sent a letter through their attorney, Dawn Coulson, telling the school that they would potentially sue for $150,000 each following their dismissal. The church's lawsuit was then launched in an effort to secure an injunction that would ensure that any litigation takes place inside of a federal court (after all, federal law favors the church's case, while state law might not).

The case carries with it uncertainty and the potential to set precedent, particularly when it comes to the hiring practices of for-profit organizations that are owned by religious groups.

(H/T: Ventura County Star)

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