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Judge rebuffs Cheektowaga teacher in suit over religious items in classroom

Joelle Silver wants to display religious items in her Cheektowaga classroom, and is suing school officials who forced their removal.

A federal judge is now recommending that most of her lawsuit be dismissed.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio found no basis for Silver’s claim that her right to free speech was violated when she was ordered to take down posters with religious messages and other items from her public school classroom.

Foschio’s ruling is advisory and must be reviewed and acted on by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

“We believe her actions were unconstitutional and now we’ve been validated by the courts,” Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said of Silver on Thursday.

The foundation, a Madison, Wis., organization that promotes the separation of government and religion, is not a party to the lawsuit but was instrumental in convincing the Cheektowaga Central School District to order the removal of Silver’s classroom material.

Foschio stopped short of recommending Silver’s lawsuit be dismissed, but did find that two of her three claims were not constitutional violations. Silver, who teaches biology and anatomy, has been with the district for eight years.

“The judge basically gave the district 95 percent of what it requested,” the district said in a statement issued by its attorney, Jeremy A. Colby of Buffalo. “The judge vindicated the district by recommending dismissal of all plaintiff’s First Amendment claims and rejecting her claimed right to display religious materials in a public classroom.”

A national group backing Silver’s lawsuit criticized the judge’s decision in a statement released to the media.

The group, the American Freedom Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., said the judge’s decision is “dripping with hostility to religion” and indicated it would continue its legal battle against the Cheektowaga schools.

“This case should remove any lingering doubts as to whether our government, which includes the judiciary, is hostile to religion,” said Robert J. Muise, co-founder of the organization.

The case began after a Cheektowaga High School student alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to a biblical poster and a drawing of three crosses in Silver’s classroom.

The foundation says the student also reported a guest speaker in Silver’s anatomy class who used Bible passages in his presentation. The group also claims Silver referred to Adam and Eve while talking about the human rib cage.

School officials expressed confidence that they will ultimately prevail and convince the courts to end Silver’s lawsuit.