"Where are we going as a nation when a teacher who answers questions about God is fired within a few days, while a pedophile is merely transferred?" asked Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, after Mildred Rosario was fired without warning for merely answering her students' questions about heaven.
On June 8, 1998, the principal at Intermediate School 74 in New York City called for a moment of silence in honor of a fifth-grader who had recently drowned. Following the solemn moment, a student in Mrs. Rosario's sixth-grade class asked "where" the deceased classmate had gone, to which the teacher answered that she believed the child had gone to heaven. Questions from the students about God and heaven persisted, in spite of Mrs. Rosario's attempts to return to the academic agenda. When it became clear that the emotional, confused students needed to express their grief and wanted answers to their religious inquiries, Mrs. Rosario provided them.
At no time, however, was the class discussion mandatory or intrusive. Instead, Mrs. Rosario repeatedly stressed that the discussion was voluntary and students uncomfortable or uninterested in participating could read or work on the computer.
After one student's parents complained, the principal promptly hauled Mrs. Rosario into his office and demanded a written account of what had transpired. She was then denied any contact with her students and rushed to a meeting with the New York City School Board. Without even issuing her a warning or reprimand, the school board fired Mrs. Rosario on the grounds that she posed an "imminent danger to students, teachers and staff." As a result, this dedicated teacher lost her job and her license to teach.
Outraged by the school board's rash decision to terminate the popular teacher, parents withheld their students from school in protest. "She was a good teacher, the best teacher in school," declared one sixth-grader. Capturing the sad irony of the situation, one student said, "It's a real dumb reason to get rid of her...they give us condoms to have safe sex...but we cannot talk about the One who made us."
Regardless of the criticism that has hailed from parents, public interest groups and politicians, the New York City School Board is standing by its decision. The board argues that Mrs. Rosario violated the separation of church and state when she continued her discussion of God and heaven and when she allowed the students to pray. And although the board has now admitted that it acted "hastily" in terminating Mrs. Rosario, she will not be asked back to teach next year.
In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. Neutrality toward religion is required, the Court said. However, since then the "wall" separating church and state has become insurmountable. As a result, the clear principal of the First Amendment, which is the freedom for religion, not the freedom from religion, has been misconstrued.
The New York City School Board has mistaken the constitutional requirement of neutrality toward religion to mean the exclusion of religion altogether. As recently expressed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, "Our government policies have moved from strict neutrality toward religion all the way to out and out hostility."
Mildred Rosario is the latest target of this hostility and most recent casualty in the battle over religion in public schools. In its all-consuming concern regarding the separation of church and state, the school board disregarded Mrs. Rosario's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. The board justifies firing Mrs. Rosario without warning, citing a provision authorizing the dismissal of anyone who "represents an imminent danger to students, teachers, and staff."
"If the teacher had been passing out drugs to students or had come to school with a knife, then the section would be applicable," explained Neill Rosenfeld, spokesman for Mrs. Rosario's union. But as Rep. Delay said, "Since when is a prayer to offer comfort to grieving sixth-graders so dangerous that it warrants the removal of this teacher without even a warning?"
Mildred Rosario, with the help of The Rutherford Institute, is challenging her dismissal and has filed a federal lawsuit. But until she is vindicated, she is without a job and the students remain without a caring and compassionate teacher. "I am a teacher," Mrs. Rosario said in a recent interview, "but to these children, I have to be a mother and a friend." And at a time when our nation's children are in desperate need of teachers who care and are willing to reach out to them, we cannot afford to lose even one like Mildred Rosario.