‘God’s Truth’ And Public Schools: Florida Teacher’s Facebook Flare-Up Ignites Controversy

It’s certainly a whole different world now that we have Facebook, isn’t it?

Without the social networking site, Florida public school teacher Jerry Buell may have continued using his classroom as a “mission field” to spread his religious beliefs – without anyone being the wiser.

But a few weeks ago, the social studies teacher made national headlines after posting some hateful anti-gay remarks on his Wall.

He wrote that New York’s legalization of gay marriage made him want to throw up and compared gay unions to a “cesspool.” Lake County School District officials suspended Buell while they further investigated his postings.

Buell, who once was awarded “teacher of the year,” returned to his teaching post last Thursday, after he claimed he was “thrown in the blender standing up for those First Amendment rights.” School administrators have disclosed that they have included a “written directive" in his file, but it’s unknown what that directive states.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Religious Right group Liberty Counsel both have defended Buell’s free speech right to post what he wants on his personal Facebook page and website. Even Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger, has defended Buell’s right to comment on issues outside the classroom.

“A teacher’s personal beliefs should not come into play at work,” Mehta wrote. “There are teachers who are Creationists, polyamorous, Jewish, swingers, drug-users, Republicans, atheists, and homosexuals. None of that matters as long as it doesn’t affect their teaching.”

They may be correct about Buell’s personal beliefs – what he says and does on his own time is his own business. But we all can agree (and Mehta does so here) that what Buell does in his official capacity as a public school teacher and government official is a different story.

In the controversy over Buell’s Facebook comments, it’s come to light that he may also be vocal in his classroom about his religious beliefs. If so, that is a definite constitutional no-no.

Buell’s class syllabus states this as a warning to students: “I teach God's truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, 'cause I ain't changing!" He’s also included on another document his belief that his classroom is a “mission field.”

On his school webpage, Buell wrote that he tries to "teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself."

A former student has also said that Buell’s beliefs are obvious to anyone who enters his classroom. The student claims he hangs Bible verses and a picture of Jesus Christ above the classroom clock.

And Nadine Smith, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Florida, said many of Buell’s former and some current students are now saying that Buell made anti-gay comments during class.

Buell’s attorney claims that the webpage has since been removed, and that Buell has removed some parts of the syllabus, too. The teacher has also deleted his Facebook profile. I’m not sure if Jesus still hangs near the clock (or if he really ever did).

That’s why the school really needs to take the time to get to the bottom of this. If all this is true, who knows how many students’ rights have been violated over the years by this teacher.

Gay rights activists have called for further investigation.

I think that may be a good idea. School district officials have a duty to protect students and maintain a religiously neutral environment. If they haven’t been doing so, there is no better time than now to step it up.