Smear Campaign Against Oregon Principal for Christian Beliefs (Part 1)
by Sarah Williams, Ph.D.
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
—U.S. Supreme Court, Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969)
On Sept 16, 2017, the Bend Bulletin (Bend, OR) reported exciting news about an upcoming plan for a smaller high school. Alice DeWittie, current principal of Summit High School, had been a key leader in this new plan: “At the end of the current school year, Alice DeWittie will leave her position as Summit High principal to start what the school district is calling The Academy.” According to the Bulletin, DeWittie had been integral to the planning since 2012, working in her free time on a grant for the alternative public school. Clearly, DeWittie was passionate about offering a smaller and more personal high school option for students.
Fast forward exactly one month. The Bulletin reported on October 16 that Alice DeWittie resigned from not only the principal position at Summit, but from the Bend-La Pine school district altogether.
Why did a cutting-edge educator, whose innovative new plan was about to come to fruition, suddenly resign? We do not know all the details. What we do know is that a smear campaign against DeWittie was launched via social media and news outlets in Bend prior to her resignation. The “separation of church and state” has once again been grossly misinterpreted, displaying the Constitutional ignorance that abounds within our culture in the area of religious freedom.
One issue that triggered the campaign against DeWittie originated with an article that she wrote (in her personal time for personal reasons) for a local Christian blog. The Bulletin referenced this piece describing DeWittie’s passion to promote more personalized education strategies versus an “assembly-line” approach.
DeWittie wrote this piece in her personal time that expresses her personal beliefs that motivate her to educate children. She poses this question, “How do we go about creating a system that honors and develops the worth and gifts of every student? How do we engage the heart of the student in the act of learning? Seeing the work of education through this perspective shifts the responsibility from far to near, from standardized to individualized, from predictable to innovative…He [God] gave me a vision, a focus of empowering students to change the world. An idea that we could figure out how to help students create the future for good, and step out of predictability and routine.”
DeWittie was also under fire for a personal email that she wrote from her personal email account to a personal group of friends at Seven Peaks School, following the firing of the Seven Peaks principal. In that email, she communicated from her Christian viewpoint to encourage her friends going through a difficult time. In her words, “Being his light means walking in forgiveness and not revenge, moving in the direction of love, peace, and joy, not anger and gossip.”
DeWittie’s email is a good reminder for all of us who are upset by recent happenings to handle this conflict in a graceful and God-honoring way. Yet we are also exhorted in Scripture to speak the truth in love. Here is a little truth…
Clarification #1: Christians can be educators in public institutions. Christians can have personal beliefs that motivate and inspire them to do their jobs in public institutions. Christians employed by public schools can express their personal Christian beliefs outside of school hours in essays, emails to friends and many other ways. This does not violate the “separation of church and state.” Public school staff members still have free speech, as clearly outlined by the Supreme Court, e.g. Tinker v. Des Moines. If someone takes issue with the personal beliefs of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jew, etc.), and attempts to get them fired, they have most likely engaged in what is legally called “viewpoint discrimination.” In the case of the smear campaign against DeWittie, it is a clear expression of bigotry, coming from those who claim to value tolerance.
See Part 2 of this post coming soon for continued commentary on the issues and further clarifications.