Joelle Silver, a science teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School in a Buffalo suburb, describes herself as a devout Christian.
A federal lawsuit filed Jan. 10 says the district was overtly hostile toward her religion and violated her constitutional rights when it directed Silver last year to remove from her classroom several posters and other displays quoting Bible verses.
Superintendent Dennis Kane said by phone that a student had complained about the material to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based watchdog group, which prompted the district to seek legal guidance.
"When you get advice that you're violating the separation of church and state, you have an obligation to resolve that," Kane said.
His June letter instructed Silver to remove several posters and sticky notes with religious references, including a poster with images of an American flag and text books with a superimposed quote: "Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love." (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)
Kane also cited the presence of a prayer request box belonging to the school's Bible study club and advised Silver to keep religious references out of her classroom lectures.
"If you need to be able to occasionally glance at inspirational Bible verses between classes during the course of the day, I suggest that you keep such material in a discreet folder that only you will have access to," the letter said. "You may keep such a folder in a drawer of your desk, so long as you take precautions not to share it or disclose its contents to your students or their parents or guardians."
Silver's lawsuit, filed by the American Freedom Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., said the district's actions "send a clear message to (Silver) that she is an outsider, not a full member of the political and school community because she is a Christian."
Robert Muise, co-founder of the center, called the case "one of the most egregious examples of religious hostility I have witnessed in a public school."
"Ms. Silver does not cease being a Christian, nor does she shed her constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," he said.
An attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation said teachers have to act neutrally when it comes to religion.
"It's required by law," Rebecca Markert said. "Public school employees, including teachers, are prohibited from professing religious beliefs and imposing them on students."