A lawsuit was recently filed on behalf of Craig Richter, principal of Foothill Elementary School, against the Goleta Union School District. The complaint says the district wrongfully threatened to fire Richter after he appeared in a promo video for last May’s 52nd Annual Community Prayer Breakfast, a nondenominational event meant to honor and raise cash for local educators, and attended by school teachers, elected officials, as well as members of the business community.
District officials, allege Richter’s lawyer, saw his participation in the video as an inappropriate breach of the separation between church and state. They said because Richter identified himself in the video as Foothill’s principal, he implied the district’s support and therefore crossed the line spelled out in the Constitution’s First Amendment. Richter — himself an evangelical Protestant — is being represented by Woodland Hills attorney Bill Rehwald.
Rehwald is one of 1,800 lawyers who work with a group called the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a powerful legal force active in the evangelical movement. The organization is well-known for intervening in hot-button issues favored by the religious right, recently fighting to uphold California’s Proposition 8 and opposing federal spending for stem cell research.
Said ADF senior counsel Joseph Infranco, “It’s ridiculous to punish and fire a Christian administrator simply because he wanted to honor teachers at an event that includes prayer. The district’s contention that he was somehow violating the Constitution is not only unfounded, but absurd, as the video itself demonstrates.”
Filed last week, Richter’s lawsuit—which seeks an injunction preventing the district from firing him—traces the beginning of the ordeal back to last March when the Foothill principal was asked by organizers of the prayer breakfast to speak on a video meant to drum up recognition and support. Richter agreed, and the video was shot on his own time, eventually being posted on the Web site of the event’s promotional company. Santa Barbara School District Superintendent Brian Sarvis and San Marcos High School teacher Jamie DeVries appeared in the video as well. Both identified themselves by their professional titles.
Sarvis, who mentioned teachers attending the breakfast received $100 gift cards, also got flack for appearing in the video. After reportedly being criticized by a number of people who felt he overstepped his bounds, Sarvis asked the company (Believer’s Edge) that featured the video on its Web site to take it down. Representatives obliged, and the clip disappeared from the page.
Sarvis said it was the video’s placement, not content, that got him nervous. Where the clip was located on the Web site was a little dodgy, he said, as it made its message and speakers look too narrowly aligned with the company and its beliefs. Sarvis, though, said he never second-guessed appearing in the video, viewing his participation in the prayer breakfast as no different than his involvement in other community events.
During Richter’s roughly 45-second spot, he talked about the “tough but noble” work of teachers, urging them to remain diligent in these financially trying times. “For educators to be acknowledged and prayed for is both an encouragement and a great honor,” he said, with an American flag displayed prominently in the background. “Your support of the Community Prayer Breakfast is greatly appreciated.”
(Watch the video in its entirety below.)
“Personally endorsing a prayer event that invites people of all faiths to honor teachers should not be twisted into a Constitutional violation,” said Rehwald. “Principal Richter did a good thing, not a bad thing, and should keep his job.” Concurred Infranco, who specializes in Constitutional issues, “I think this is a school district that is simply uninformed of the law and is guilty of overreaching into someone’s private expression, probably out of ignorance.” Infranco said the threatening memo written to Richter and now included inhis file cannot be made public yet as it may be used as evidence if the case goes to trial.
After the video was shot, the complaint reads, Richter learned the Goleta Union School District decided not to officially participate in the event, worrying the breakfast would run long and prevent teachers from making it to class before the school day started. At no time, though, did it appear there was any kind of directive issued by Goleta Union School District officials or its superintendent, Kathleen Boomer, telling teachers they could not attend because of First Amendment considerations.
The breakfast—which by all accounts was an overwhelming success that featured high turnout, good vibes, and heartfelt support for area educators—was attended by a few elected officials, including Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams, as well as teachers from Santa Barbara and Goleta.
In an interview with The Independent, Williams said that if Richter was indeed disciplined for being in the video, it’s a real problem. “Unless he was using school time to do it,” said Williams, a regular at prayer breakfasts, “he is allowed, like anybody else, to declare their faith or beliefs in his own time. It’s his business, not the school district’s.”
Williams pointed out that not only did teachers speak in person at the event, but Mayor Helene Schneider was also featured in a movie clip played at the breakfast. Those appearances weren’t issues, said Williams, and if all the claims laid out in the lawsuit are true, Richter’s shouldn’t have been either. The councilmember also mentioned he “respectfully disagrees” with the notion that, just by introducing himself as a school principal, Richter made it look like he was representing his employer.
It wasn’t until a Goleta Union School District boardmember later saw the promo video on YouTube that Richter’s involvement became a cause for concern, according to the lawsuit. Concluding that Richter’s speech was not okay, the district threatened in May not to renew Richter’s contract as principal in March 2011, and then placed him on a performance plan. The performance plan, said Infranco, is basically a form of punishment. And according to Rehwald, Richter was told that if the video had been seen before March 2010 — at which time his contract was renewed for the next year — he would have been fired then.
Richter, concludes the suit, thinks the district is using his religious beliefs “as a measuring rod of his performance for 2010” and should be called out for discrimination. “Though [Richter] does not openly advocate, share, or proselytize at work,” the complaint reads, “his beliefs are known to the district and [he] believes the district is looking for any excuse to get rid of him for his religious beliefs … [Richter] is an evangelical Protestant, holding traditional beliefs that Jesus Christ was God’s Son who died on the cross for the sins of this world.”
As almost an afterthought, Rehwald also writes that this purported act of discrimination may not be isolated, as the district has given Richter grief in the past for having a Good News Club—which promotes the same kind of religion he subscribes to—on his campus. District reps, said Rehwald, had also criticized Richter for approving a flyer that advertised an Easter Egg hunt at a nearby church.
Goleta Union representatives would not comment whatsoever on the pending lawsuit, citing personnel considerations. Superintendent Boomer, when asked for a response, said she couldn’t even really address the controversy because she hadn’t been served with the complaint yet. She also wouldn’t speak about district guidelines governing or examining possible breaches of separation between church and state, claiming that even general discussions of issues that pertain to Richter’s case would not be inappropriate.
School Board president Valerie Kushnerov had a similar response, saying, “There are always two sides to a story, and I would caution people about rushing to judgment.” Numerous calls placed to numerous district principals and teachers were not returned. Richter himself was unavailable for comment.