After five years of fighting, the nonprofit legal group First Liberty confirmed a settlement has been reached that will allow a teacher fired for giving a student a Bible to return to work.
The settlement comes some two-and-a-half years after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission called for a settlement after it reviewed the facts of the case against teacher Walt Tutka.
Tutka was dismissed from his post as a substitute teacher with the Phillipsburg, New Jersey, district after his interaction with a student.
The federal agency said the district’s statements didn’t bear out.
“An analysis of the evidence reveals that respondent’s defense does not withstand careful scrutiny. Respondent has failed to produce key documents that could potentially support its defense despite being requested to do same. Evidence of record also confirms that the nexus behind respondent’s scheduled meeting was the distribution of religious material and planned disciplinary action following a failed attempt to terminate the charging party upon recommendation to the school board.
“Given these circumstances and absent adequate documentation to support its defense, the commission must conclude that more credibility should be assigned to charging party’s contention that religion and retaliation played a factor in his termination rather than respondent’s proffered defense.”’
The battle started in 2012 “when a student asked longtime substitute teacher Walt Tutka where in the Bible a famous quote could be found. Walt pulled out his personal Bible and showed the student so the student could look up the quote at home,” the legal team explained.
“When the student said he did not have a Bible, Walt spontaneously gave his Bible to the student to look up the quote ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first.'”
The school’s principal suspended him, and then the school board voted to fire him.
The EEOC letter directed that discussions and negotiations be held to see if the problem could be resolved, and First Liberty confirmed the agreement will allow the teacher to return to his duties.
“We are really pleased we accomplished the mission we set out to achieve – restoring Walt Tutka as a substitute teacher in Phillipsburg,” said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for First Liberty. “We always knew Walt complied with all school district policies and federal laws, the EEOC agreed, and now Walt is returning to his service to the community.
“No one should be fired from their job because of their religious beliefs. Today, not only has Walt’s religious liberty been restored, he has been given the chance to do again what he loves the most: teaching the children of Phillipsburg School District.”
The EEOC letter, from Area Director John Waldinger, had warned the school district if it declined “to enter into conciliation discussions, or when the commission’s representative is unable to secure an acceptable conciliation agreement, the director shall so inform the parties, advising them of the court enforcement alternatives available to aggrieved persons and the commission.”
First Liberty said Tutka was holding the door open for a student one day when he said, “The first shall be last, but the last shall be first.”
The student was curious enough to ask about the saying, and eventually Tutke showed the student the quote in his personal Bible.
When the student said he did not have a Bible in which to look up the saying himself, Tutka gave him his.
The teacher was suspended and later fired, and the EEOC ruling came after he brought a charge of discrimination against the school.