Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Christian school sues teachers it fired
BY SUSAN ABRAM, Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES -- Two preschool teachers at a Christian school in Thousand Oaks are facing a legal battle after they were fired for refusing to fill out forms about their faith and church attendance.
The Little Oaks School has filed a federal lawsuit against teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevarra after they threatened to sue for wrongful termination.
The school was bought in 2009 by the Family, Life, Faith, & Freedom Educational Corp., an affiliate of Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks.
As part of the new structure, the school last year began to require employees to fill out forms that included questions about their faith, their church attendance and required an endorsement from their pastor.
Since Serrano and Guevarra did not provide pastoral references, they were terminated in August.
They retained an attorney who wrote the school a letter saying the teachers had a right to file a lawsuit under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act.
But the school's attorney, Richard Kahdeman, said the school falls under a religious institution exception, and FEHA doesn't apply.
"Under the federal constitution's First and 14th amendment, all religious organizations including schools, have the right to be able to hire, retain and terminate those who share their religious faith," said Kahdeman, who filed the federal lawsuit against Serrano and Guevarra on Jan. 23.
Kahdeman said the school's decision to terminate Serrano and Guevarra is supported by a recent, unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states "that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations' selection of religious leaders."
"This is an important case from a constitutional point of view," Kahdeman said of his lawsuit.
He said the school is asking the court for a declaration that Serrano and Guevarra cannot sue the school.
But Dawn Coulson, the attorney for the teachers, said that while Calvary Chapel may be a nonprofit, the school is a for-profit entity and does fall under FEHA. The school, therefore, cannot require such questionnaires, Coulson said.
"That would be like the church buying shares in IBM, and IBM saying, 'We can now discriminate, based on religion,'" Coulson said
She also said both teachers had been working at the school for years, received good reviews and had no problems leading their 2- and 4-year-old students in regular prayers in class.
Coulson said the school told Serrano and Guevarra, "we're not going to keep you on as teachers unless you have your pastor provide a reference letter," she said. "While they taught the curriculum just fine, they didn't think a for-profit should be delving into their privacy. They had done their job well for years and years.
"We believe that under California law, Little Oaks violated their employees' rights by firing them."
Coulson said the school is trying to get federal court jurisdiction over state statute, but she doubts it will work.
"It's about the school, not the church," she said. "This is the wackiest claim I've ever heard."