Teacher Fired for the Mere Mention of the Ten Commandments

John C. Rankin

In 1995, Joyce Sperow, a home economics teacher at Regional 7 High School in Northwestern Connecticut, allowed a student to allude to the Ten Commandments. The context was pedagogical and professional.

Mrs. Sperow was suspended by the School Superintendent for this alleged violation of “church-state” issues. And in a subsequent series of disciplinary hearings and officially sanctioned harassment, she was finally fired for “insubordination” in 2001 – with great loss of income, benefits and pension.

In two hearings and in one lawsuit, Mrs. Sperow was represented by attorneys who failed to win her vindication. In the professional opinions of other attorneys, ex post facto, it was their consensus that she was ill-served by poor counsel or disingenuity.

The centrality of the religious discrimination issue was strenuously avoided by Regional 7, as its attorneys sought to shift the focus to subsequent and non-germane procedural issues. And Mrs. Sperow’s attorneys did not challenge this redefinition of the terms.

I helped to counsel Mrs. Sperow across the years, but not being an attorney, I was unable to represent her legally. But had I the time, focus and foresight to press in on the intellectual battles in venues accessible, the result would likely have been different.

Finally Mrs. Sperow appealed to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) for an “impartial” hearing to see if any discrimination had occurred. The CHRO does not make legal decisions, but based on a review of the facts, with both parties represented, they write a summary opinion. If it is in favor of the plaintiff, a mediation process is offered, and if that fails, then an appeal to the next step in the CHRO process follows.

Mrs. Sperow asked me to serve as her official advocate in the “impartial” hearing, where legal representation was not requisite, so that as a minister, I was able to do so. I sat through some ten hours of meetings on October 15 and 22, 2003 in Waterbury, CT.

As a result of my summary observations and persistent advocacy for the next nine months, on July 15, 2004, the CHRO issued a “Finding of Reasonable Cause” that reversed the prior rulings and found that discrimination had occurred against Mrs. Sperow. The CHRO process indicated a clear bias against Mrs. Sperow from October, 2003 through June, 2004, but facts are stubborn things, and the Finding ended up being a rousing vindication of Mrs. Sperow.

Below is a series of selected communications I had with the CHRO, chronologically ordered, followed by summary observations about the Finding. These communications are like listening to one side of a phone conversation, yet all the details are self-explanatory. As you read through it, you will see how clear the case is on behalf of Mrs. Sperow. These communications assume a mutual familiarity with all the factual details surrounding the case, and italicized words in brackets are subsequent additions of clarity for the sake of the reader. At the end of the two fact-finding meetings, I asked the CHRO investigator if I were free to be public about their process and content, and I was told yes (as well, the ten hours were recorded on audiotape as part of the official transcript).

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November 20, 2003

To: Ms. Roxanne Sinclair, Esq., Investigator with the CHRO for Case No. 0130607.

Dear Ms. Sinclair:

Serving as an advocate for Mrs. Joyce Sperow, and in attending the Commission’s fact finding meetings on October 15 and 22, I observe that the original facts were never investigated. And when I argued this reality during the mediation phase, you dismissed my concerns out of hand.

Here is the simple reality in summation:

  1. Dr. Robert Fish [school superintendent] stated in the fact finding meeting that Mrs. Sperow has acted “against the law” in a matter of “church-state issues.”
  2. Dr. Fish never specified what this church-state transgression was.
  3. The whole process of Regional 7’s actions against Mrs. Sperow began with an accusation that Mrs. Sperow spoke about the “Ten Commandments” with some students (see below), with the implicit understanding that this was an illegal act.
  4. In the fact-finding meetings, you never investigated this incident, nor questioned Dr. Fish et al. about it.
  5. The people making this accusation, upon whom Dr. Fish relied, were never identified.
  6. The charge against Mrs. Sperow for insubordination is rooted in her refusal to sign a letter written by Dr. Fish, where she was to admit guilt in this matter, and promise never to talk about it. In other words, she was being coerced into perjuring herself, being coerced into breaking the Ninth Commandment.
  7. All subsequent complaints of insubordination against Mrs. Sperow are rooted in these unexamined facts.
  8. Thus, the CHRO has no basis to reach any judgment in this matter until these facts are investigated.
  9. And when these facts are addressed, it is clearly an issue of Mrs. Sperow being denied her First Amendment liberties in matters of religion and speech. The question of “insubordination” is an ex post facto ruse to avoid this reality.
  10. If Mrs. Sperow is to be disciplined for the mention of the Ten Commandments, then Regional 7 is to be found likewise guilty before the fact. Namely, by displaying a menorah in the school, they have profiled, in pedagogical context for all students and faculty, the representation of the candelabrum that historically stood next to the stone engravings of the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant, in the inner sanctuary of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Therefore, the CHRO deliberately did not investigate these original and determinative facts of the case. You have not fulfilled your duties. Mrs. Sperow has suffered religious discrimination, Dr. Fish et al. have sought to hide behind claims of authority and means of procedure, and you have given aid to their agenda, thus serving to “bear false witness,” i.e., to willfully violate the Ninth Commandment. Or in other words, you have confirmed by your actions that the whole matter is one of freedom of religion and speech with respect to the pedagogical use of the Ten Commandments to show students that it is wrong to lie.

The above facts have also been ignored by Regional 7’s attorney, Mark J. Sommaruga, in his November 3 post fact finding brief.

  1. The October 15 and 22 CHRO fact-finding meetings are demonstrably not “impartial” as they were supposed to be [as Mr. Sommaruga claimed]. The original and determinative facts were not investigated, and moreover, they were dismissed out of hand when I sought to raise them on Mrs. Sperow’s behalf.
  2. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was never investigated either. The predicate for liberty of speech, press, assembly and redress of grievances is rooted in the prior liberty of religion. Without the liberty to believe freely, there is no liberty to speak what you believe, publish what you believe, assemble on the basis of your beliefs, or redress the government based on your beliefs.
  3. Mr. Sommaruga says there is “absolutely no proof” that the actions against Mrs. Sperow were on the basis of her “religious status.” That is a curious clause, as though religious belief is determined by “status” (i.e., “class”), and not individual liberty that is status and class neutral. Rather, Mr. Sommaruga, by also ignoring the original and determinative facts of the case, has refused to investigate the religious liberty issue. At the fact-finding hearing, he dismissed the matter up front as you did in the mediation process.
  4. Thus, both the CHRO and Mr. Sommaruga are partial by refusal to investigate what “church-state issue” Dr. Fish accused Mrs. Sperow of violating. The very issue that set this whole process into motion.

Most sincerely,

Rev. John C. Rankin

cc: Mrs. Joyce Sperow; Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga

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Salient facts as I submitted to the CHRO on October 15 (2003):

1. The initial charge [in September, 1995] against Mrs. Sperow is rooted in religious discrimination – a charge that her mere mention of the “Ten Commandments” was unacceptable behavior for a public school teacher.

a. The situation at hand began with some female students making noise outside her classroom door during lunch period. Mrs. Sperow spoke with them, as they stepped inside the door adjacent to her classroom, and asked why they were not in the cafeteria as they were supposed to be. They said they were waiting for another teacher. Mrs. Sperow knew this to be untrue, that the teacher in question was in the cafeteria. Instead of confronting the students with a mere charge that they were lying, Mrs. Sperow sought a diplomatic route. She sought to help the girls to come to such a conclusion on their own, and thus make this a “teachable” moment that would increase their true dignity and capacity as moral agents. Mrs. Sperow then used a point of common reference – a “Get Acquainted” class the prior year where these girls had introduced some of their background. Mrs. Sperow asked them if they remembered the “Get Acquainted” class, and they said yes. In that class, the girls spoke of the specific church they attended, of their own initiative. Mrs. Sperow responded by asking them what they learned at their church, and they mentioned the “Creed,” the “Our Father,” and the “Ten Commandments.” So now Mrs. Sperow then asked, “Do you think there is one Commandment that applies to this situation?” They responded, “Thou shalt not lie.”

Thus, Mrs. Sperow took information provided by the students, as rooted in a history between she and them that honors the established protocol for religious liberty in a public school setting. She used it with wise diplomacy, and succeeded in getting the girls to admit their own lying at the moment. Mrs. Sperow should be commended for this tact. But instead she has been systematically harassed by Regional 7 officials, catalyzed by reaction to her effective handling of the situation.

2. This harassment involved four disciplinary hearings [between 1996 and 2001] aimed at Mrs. Sperow.

a. In the first hearing, Dr. Robert Fish asked Mrs. Sperow to sign a statement agreeing to the merit of a 10-day suspension being imposed on her; and also her agreement not to mention the nature of the suspension to anyone else. In other words, she was being asked to lie because she successfully taught some students that lying was wrong, and to lie by covering up the putative reason for her suspension. Two different attorneys advised Mrs. Sperow not to sign such a false agreement. Because of her refusal to perjure herself, Mrs. Sperow was charged with “insubordination.”

b. A second hearing focused on two incidents. The first occurred in a cooking class, where there were groups of students in four different kitchens. One group was unruly, and as one female member of the group went to a common area, she was about to place a wrong item in one of the recycling bins. Mrs. Sperow lifted the lid, and said to her: “Read this – what does it say?” The girl charged Mrs. Sperow with being unkind, and said she felt unhappy about Mrs. Sperow coming so close to her so as to have her right hand brush against the student’s arm.

The second occurred when Mrs. Sperow once asked a female student to close the cupboard door, and in the process brushed the student’s elbow. The girl screeched, “Don’t touch me!”

Accordingly, an edict was given by Regional 7 for Mrs. Sperow not to touch any students.

c. The third hearing was called in a reprise concerning touching students [concluding sentence below here excised]. During study hall one day, one male student was showing a photo album to some female students. They were giggling and not settling into class. So Mrs. Sperow told the girls to go to their seats, and for the boy to put the photo album away. The girls said “No.” So Mrs. Sperow said, “I will keep the album on the desk until the end of the period,” after which the boy was free to pick it up. He complied. But the girls then came to take the album off the desk. So Mrs. Sperow put it in her backpack, reading aloud from the student handbook the specific rules for classroom behavior she was enforcing. Several girls surrounded her to distract her while another girl sought to reach into Mrs. Sperow’s backpack to extract the album. Simultaneously, Mrs. Sperow placed her hand down upon [her own] backpack to prevent this, and as it happens, came into contact with the student’s hand seeking to reach into the backpack. The student claimed she was “slapped.”

Thus, Mrs. Sperow was again reprimanded for “insubordination.”

d. The fourth hearing was called in response to yet another incident. In a study hall for unruly male students, one boy was seeking by creative means (crawling under desks etc.) to escape the classroom in order to wander the halls. Mrs. Sperow twice returned him to his desk, as he complied with the verbal order, but then had to put him in her office to keep it from happening again. He sat in her chair, which had wheels on it, and was rolling in and out of the doorway, yelling at the other students. Mrs. Sperow told him he must be quiet, and in response, he slammed the office door shut. When he tried to open it from within, he was unable, and thus he had to sit in the office another fifteen minutes until the end of the class. He was compliant [a claim that was later challenged], and Mrs. Sperow let him out accordingly. But in the subsequent class he attended, he told fellow students of the incident, some of those students reported it to the administration, and Mrs. Sperow was charged with “imprisoning” the student.

As is evident, all these incidents are rooted in unruly and rebellious students lying about Mrs. Sperow as she sought to gain a modicum of control in the hallway and classroom. Her actions were all restrained and professional. Yet Mrs. Sperow had many burdensome rules placed upon her in the process, with no precedent even among teachers who were in genuine need of discipline. In fact, Mrs. Sperow was regularly assigned the most unruly students to monitor, and instead of thanks, she was harassed. [Also, Mrs. Sperow had other teachers assigned to sit in her classroom from time to time to “monitor” her.]

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In my October 15 summation of the facts, I was unaware of the Hutterian Brethren incident, thus I added these comments on October 22:

In the incident where Mrs. Sperow called the Hutterian Brethren anonymously [relative to the possible religious harassment of some of their children, seeking evidence bolstering her own case], Mrs. Sperow was wrong [in making the call anonymously, out of her own fear], and has apologized. Reconciliation in such matters as these include the professional willingness of any and all to admit error when it is shown. Nonetheless, this error on Mrs. Sperow’s part was an error of reaction to the “hostile environment” she was subjected to, as she sought to protect herself; and not out of any initiative against another person.

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April 14, 2004

To: Ms. Roxanne Sinclair, Esq., Investigator with the CHRO for Case No. 0130607.

Dear Ms. Sinclair:

Last October 22, you expressed resolve, as the end of the Commission’s fact finding process, to rule on Mrs. Joyce Sperow’s case by the end of the calendar year if not sooner.

It is mid-April, and you have never been in contact with me as Mrs. Sperow’s advocate, and only in passing on two detail matters with Mrs. Sperow.

When may we expect to receive from you a detailed answer to my letter of November 20? A copy is enclosed.

Most sincerely,

Rev. John C. Rankin

cc: Mrs. Joyce Sperow; Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga

________________________________________

April 28, 2004

To: Ms. Pekah Wallace, Regional Manager for the CHRO.

[Here Ms. Wallace had signed a cover letter approving the Draft Reasonable Cause Finding of April 19, and I mistakenly thought she had written it instead of Ms. Sinclair who actually wrote it. I did not discover this mistake until a later review.]

Dear Ms. Wallace:

I am in receipt of the Draft Reasonable Cause Finding re: CHRO No.: 0130607 – Sperow vs. Regional School District No. 7; EEOC No.: 15aa3360. Thank you.

And I understand that Atty. Mark Sommaruga must respond by May 4, if he can sustain an objection to your summary of the facts, and your determination that reasonable cause exists for believing a discriminatory act has occurred against Mrs. Sperow.

As her advocate, and at this juncture, I would like to add one additional perspective.

Namely, whereas the Finding acknowledges the presence of religious discrimination, it focuses on itemizing elements of age and sex discrimination. Now age and sex discrimination are properly in view, but they are also secondary in nature. With respect to my November 20, 2003 ten-point outline of the facts of the case, your Finding of course does not dispute them, but neither does it focus on them. It is Mrs. Sperow’s belief, and I agree with her, that religious discrimination is the overwhelming and defining reality. It is an egregious failure of the system, and of Mrs. Sperow’s prior legal representation, that this reality was so often pushed aside. And in my presence, Attys. Roxanne Sinclair and Sommaruga likewise sought to dismiss it. Thus, in whatever lies before us in the process of winning full justice for Mrs. Sperow, the salient centrality of religious discrimination remains our concern.

Most sincerely,

Rev. John C. Rankin

cc: Mrs. Joyce Sperow; Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga

________________________________________

May 8, 2004

To: Ms. Pekah Wallace, Regional Manager for the CHRO.

Dear Ms. Wallace:

I am in receipt of Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga’s May 3, 2004 [38 page] response to your April, 19, 2004 Draft Reasonable Cause Finding re: CHRO No.: 0130607 – Sperow vs. Regional School District No. 7; EEOC No.: 15aa3360.

In his response, Mr. Sommaruga only confirms the ten-point factual summary I submitted on November 20, 2003, with attendant commentary, and my reiteration of the centrality of religious discrimination in my April 28 letter to you (copies enclosed).

Namely, his argument is rooted in ex post facto matters relative to the original facts concerning religious discrimination. These are facts he never addresses, facts that remain uncontested. Thus, all the argumentation he marshals is materially irrelevant until he is able to contest and sustain an objection to these original facts.

Most sincerely,

Rev. John C. Rankin

cc: Mrs. Joyce Sperow; Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga

________________________________________

June 7, 2004

To: Ms. Roxanne Sinclair, Esq., Investigator with the CHRO; re: Mrs. Joyce Sperow: CHRO Case 0130607; EEOC Case 15aa3360.

Dear Ms. Sinclair:

Thank you for your phone call this morning.

Whereas you do not wish to commit our conversation to writing, I will do so in salient summary. I understand the following:

  1. You wish that Mrs. Sperow had an attorney representing her before the CHRO, with an implicit sense, as I judged it, that it would better serve her than an advocate who is not an attorney.
  2. The final summary is not yet complete, and you do not yet know its conclusion.
  3. Though [your] draft summary ruled there is reasonable cause that Mrs. Joyce Sperow suffered discrimination, you state that it is a weak case.
  4. You invited me to propose a settlement in the interim, and you outlined some of its parameters.
  5. You stated that you want me to do this as soon as possible, due to deadlines or pressures you face.
  6. I gave you a 10-14 day range to give a response, and you tried to insist I do it sooner.
  7. You promised you would contact me in this time period if there were any impending deadline(s) of which I must be aware.

Here are some current observations and questions:

1. As I stated in my November 20, 2003 letter, and again in my April 28 and May 8 letters, the original facts concerning the religious discrimination were never investigated by your office, and you explicitly denied there was any [apart from your draft summary that does acknowledge] religious discrimination explicitly but briefly, [turning your] attention [instead] to secondary concerns of age and sex discrimination [in great detail]. But religious discrimination is the paramount reality, and neither you nor Mr. Sommaruga have challenged any of the facts I presented in this vein. Your office cannot be impartial in its role unless all of the facts I have presented are examined, and detailed in writing on your part. Namely – am I right in those facts, or am I in error? And if it is the latter, what are your contrary factual claims?

2. I see an unmistakable pattern to avoid the religious discrimination reality, [as you acknowledge it only in one clause, and studiously avoid it otherwise, and for Mr. Sommaruga], I see more than avoidance – I see tautological denial ( ). Indeed, in Mrs. Sperow’s prior legal counsel, this avoidance was also in play. Only now that I have itemized it after sitting in on the CHRO fact-finding meetings, as her chosen advocate, has even a favorable draft opinion come Mrs. Sperow’s way. You may think the draft summary is weak in terms of age and sex discrimination, but you have yet to deal with the strength of my advocacy concerning religious discrimination.

3. After the October 22 CHRO meeting, you asked me and Mr. Sommaruga to prepare our written arguments within a month’s time. You stated that you were under some time constraints, and you intended to issue a ruling in early [to mid] December. I did so by November 20, but then I heard nothing from you by mid-April. So I wrote you a letter on April 14 inquiring why, and then [you] issued the draft summary on April 19, footnoting my April 14 letter. If you were under such time constraints as earlier indicated, why the four-month delay?

4. Thus, why should I have cause to consider there is a real time constraint now? If there is, I need to know exactly what it is, and what jeopardy Mrs. Sperow might be under if a certain timetable is required by law. I shall be as prompt as my schedule allows, with certain variables beyond my full control factored in.

Most sincerely,

Rev. John C. Rankin

cc: Mrs. Joyce Sperow; Ms. Pekah Wallace; Atty. Mark J. Sommaruga

________________________________________

There was no direct reply to this letter from Ms. Sinclair. Then with her July 15, 2004 “Finding of Reasonable Cause,” I was happily astonished at how complete and resounding the vindication for Mrs. Sperow was. Consider this sequence:

  1. The CHRO investigator, Ms. Roxanne Sinclair, Esq., stated in the October 22, 2003 mediation phase that there was no religious discrimination involved, as the attorney for Regional 7, Mr. Mark J. Sommaruga, Esq., maintained to the end.
  2. In my November 20, 2003 letter to the CHRO with a summary of the original facts, I showed completely otherwise.
  3. In the CHRO Draft Summary of April 19, 2004, Ms. Sinclair admitted religious discrimination in one clause only, but then itemized data relative only to age and sex discrimination, valid albeit secondary elements.
  4. In my April 28 response to the Draft Summary, I reiterated the centrality of the original facts of religious discrimination.
  5. In my May 8 response to Mr. Sommaruga’s May 3 rebuttal of the Draft Summary, I reiterated the same again.
  6. In her June 7 phone call to me, Ms. Sinclair tried to move me off the case by ostensibly wishing Mrs. Sperow had legal representation instead, even though, and as a minister, I was the only one who had produced positive results for Mrs. Sperow so far. Ms. Sinclair said that the Draft Summary case for Mrs. Sperow was “weak,” with reference, I believe, to the secondary elements of age and sex.
  7. In response, I again reiterated and strengthened the case for the original facts of religious discrimination, noting the pattern of avoidance on Ms. Sinclair’s part, and of tautological denial on Mr. Sommaruga’s part.
  8. In the July 15 Final Finding, Ms. Sinclair radically and abruptly changed focus. It was not organized in a chronological pattern of starting with the original facts, then examining cause and effect – as I wished to see. It was still locked in ex post facto procedural mode, yet even there, in the text and footnotes, she finally addressed the original facts, at least in an overview capacity, and strengthened them somewhat with material I found secondary, and also strengthened the age and sex discrimination factors. As well, Ms. Sinclair’s ruling contained additional language of rebuke for School Superintendent Dr. Fish’s vindictive agenda against Mrs. Sperow.

Here are some salient quotes from the Final Finding:

  • “The respondent [Regional 7] denied any and all claims of discrimination and, specifically, any claims of discrimination on the basis of age or religious belief” (p. 2).
  • “The investigator proceeded to conduct a thorough and complete investigation…” (p. 3).
  • “Is the respondent’s explanation credible? No” (p. 6).
  • “A comparison of the complainant’s [Mrs. Sperow’s] first suspension in September 1995, for violation of so-called Church/State issues … showed (that) … there were no clearly established rules setting standards for the alleged misconduct” (p. 7).
  • “In contrast, the complainant was suspended for two weeks for so-called Church/State issues. The respondent had no rules or policy defining Church/State issues. The incidents were not related to repeat occurrences. No evidence was ever offered by respondent of any investigation into the specific conduct at issue in each instance” (p. 8).
  • “The anonymous phone call to the Hutterian Brethren was the only incident investigated” (p. 8).
  • “Why did Dr. Fish regard this as a Church/State issue?” (p. 8).
  • “Why did Dr. Fish regard this as a Church/State issue?” (again, on p. 8).
  • “Fish did not disclose the source of the alleged complaint” (p. 8).
  • “How did Dr. Fish conclude that both instances were Church/State issues?” (p. 8).
  • “Fish blew up when she refused to sign agreeing to discipline that she in principle did not agree with and when she failed to sign it he took deliberate action to fire her” (p. 9, footnote 6).
  • “Fish’s attempt to fire her was a vindictive act” (p. 9, footnote 7).
  • “There is no indication that sexual harassment or physically abusive contact was at issue here. Most of the incidents of alleged ‘unwanted touching’ were vague and unsubstantiated” (p. 9, footnote 8).
  • “The sequence of events arguably supports the complainant’s claim she was being pressured to retire as part of an overall pattern of disciplinary harassment by Dr. Fish and the respondent Board of Education” (p. 11).
  • “The offer is in Dr. Fish’s handwriting. The complainant was not invited to meet with him in his office to discuss the offer. The offer was not presented through the complainant’s union. In fact, he insisted on meeting her away from the school” (p. 11).
  • “Is the proof in the investigative file, considered in its entirety, sufficient to support a finding that there does exist reasonable cause to believe that illegal discrimination has occurred? Yes” (p. 12).

________________________________________

Despite this ruling, Regional 7 was not amenable to any just settlement. Thus, an appeals process within the CHRO was automatically followed, and this time, it was required for Mrs. Sperow to have legal representation. I secured for her excellent counsel. Mrs. Sperow had a prior ruling against her in Superior Court, when she was represented by a prior attorney who did not represent her well or according to her wishes that the case be a matter of religious liberty, not procedure. Because of this loss in court, res judicata was now applied at the CHRO final hearing, and it brought to an end this avenue of appeal for Mrs. Sperow.

Mrs. Sperow’s options since have been a) to file a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court, or b) to file a lawsuit in the Second District the U.S. Court of Appeals. But she does not have the money. I clearly see it as a First Amendment case, and now that it is out of the CHRO orb, all parties involved in the original CHRO hearing may be deposed.

Legal counsel said that these options are very difficult to pursue within the current legal system, apart from some remarkable public pressure. Legislative change is necessary to prevent future such injustices. Thus, justice awaits.

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