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California district pays $360K settlement to teacher fired over LGBTQ+ policies

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Dive Brief:

  • California’s Jurupa Unified School District has agreed to pay $360,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit after public school teacher Jessica Tapia claimed the district violated her First Amendment rights when it fired her for not adhering to gender-affirming school policies.
  • Tapia claimed the district refused to accommodate her Christian beliefs when it required her to allow transgender students to use facilities aligning with their gender identities and to call them by their preferred pronouns.
  • The lawsuit said Tapia’s “religion requires her to love everyone but to not affirm beliefs or behaviors that are antithetical to the Word of God” and that the district’s requirements caused her “to suffer severe mental and emotional anguish.”

Dive Insight:

While the Jurupa Unified School District denied “any illegal action or discrimination against Ms. Tapia” and “has not admitted to any fault or wrongdoing,” it said the settlement was “in the best interest of the students,” according to news reports.

The suit, filed in May 2023, comes amid a stark division between states that lean Republican or Democratic in how to approach LGBTQ+ issues. Policies barring transgender students from using facilities aligning with their gender identities, curriculum reflecting LGBTQ+ issues, and the use of preferred pronouns are some of the many regulations passed by conservative states in recent years.

Those policies have often led to First Amendment lawsuits, with students, parents and teachers claiming they discriminate against LGBTQ+ people and the educators who are tasked with creating an inclusive environment for them. 

However, Tapia’s lawsuit claims the First Amendment also protected her refusal to adhere to policies adopted to create such an environment. The lawsuit claims Tapia, a physical education teacher, “was torn between agreeing to conditions that caused her to violate her religious beliefs or losing the job she worked her entire life for.”

“Consequently, she was unable to focus on her job,” lawyers from Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the nonprofit law firm that represented Tapia, said in the lawsuit. Tapia was fired Jan. 30, 2023, according to case documents.

“If the school district’s actions were legal, no teacher of faith would be qualified to serve as a public school teacher,” said Julianne Fleischer, legal counsel for the firm, in a statement last week. “She fought back to ensure her school district was held accountable and that no other teacher has to succumb to this type of discrimination.” 

Many Democratic-leaning states, including California, have pushed back against the conservative trend by passing their own pro-LGBTQ+ legislation. 

In 2023, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a slew of laws meant to protect LGBTQ+ students in schools. 

They required cultural competency training for teachers and accessible gender-neutral bathrooms in K-12 schools.

“California is proud to have some of the most robust laws in the nation when it comes to protecting and supporting our LGBTQ+ community, and we’re committed to the ongoing work to create safer, more inclusive spaces for all Californians,” said Newsom when signing the legislation in September 2023. “These measures will help protect vulnerable youth, promote acceptance, and create more supportive environments in our schools and communities.” 

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