School district wants lawsuit dismissed; Teacher claims religious discrimination

The Watson Chapel School District has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them by a teacher who claimed that he was discriminated against because of his religion.

Mark Leon Essex Smith, who filed the suit last year, also claimed that the district retaliated against him by reassigning him from teaching algebra to manager of an alternative learning environment lab.

Smith ran unsuccessfully for a position on the Pine Bluff School District Board of Directors last week.

Attorney Michael Dennis, who represents the district, said in a court filing Friday that Smith’s claim of religious discrimination should be dismissed because his choice of apparel was not a bona fide religious requirement.

Smith, who indicated on his application that he is a Muslim, had reported for work on Sept. 10, 2010, wearing a Dashiki (a colorful West African shirt) and Kufi (knitted head gear), and said he wore the clothing to celebrate the last day of Ramadan.

In a deposition taken by the school district, Smith admitted that Islam does not require its followers to wear such attire.

He was sent home by Assistant Principal Henry Webb who determined that the clothing Smith was wearing violated school district policies.

“The Watson Chapel School District maintains a prohibition against any employee promoting a theology on its premises,” Dennis said in the court filing. “The prohibition is to any promotion of a theology and is thus non-discriminatory because it applies to all theologies.”

Regarding Smith’s claim of retaliation, Dennis said the reassignment occurred nearly a year after he complained to the school board and requested a hearing on the clothing issue and “is too remote in time to support a finding of retaliation.”

Smith taught Algebra during the 2010-2011 school year and Dennis said school officials were contacted as early as September 2010 by parents regarding Smith’s teaching and their children’s grades.

“A majority of Smith’s students failed Algebra in 2010-2011 and during a conference between Smith and school officials in February 2011, it was reported that 85 percent of Smith’s students had F’s. Despite that conference, 95 percent of Smith’s students had F’s in April.

Dennis also said in the court filing that there was no adverse employment action taken by the district in that Smith did not lose any salary or benefits from the transfer, which was a lateral transfer.

“Defendant’s (Smith’s) failure to educate students so that they could pass the course; his combative manner toward attempts to assist his teaching methodologies and repeated and numerous complaints from parents are all legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the reassignment,” Dennis said in the court filing.