California teacher fired for religious beliefs gets six-figure payout in court

California teacher fired for religious beliefs gets six-figure payout in court

Jessica Tapia displays a sign outside the Garden Grove Unified School District board meeting on behalf of the Teachers Don’t Lie program. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Advocates for Faith and Freedom and Jessica Tapia

CNA Staff, May 16, 2024 / 18:04 pm (CNA).

A Christian teacher settled in court for $360,000 earlier this week after suing a California school district board for firing her after she refused to comply with gender ideology rules that went against her religious beliefs.

After refusing to comply with a preferred pronoun rule, Jessica Tapia was fired by the Jurupa Unified School District from her job as a physical education teacher.

“It ultimately really does come down to my faith and how I believe that it’s always worth it to stand for righteousness and fight for truth,” Tapia told CNA in a phone call. “And ultimately, I believe the word of God is that truth and is the instructions we’ve been given to live our life upon. There’s really nothing else or no one else that I lean on for that.”

After students reported Tapia’s private social media account to the school district, an account where she shared her views, the school district placed her on administrative leave and investigated her in 2022.  

“When I came to this position in my workplace and as a teacher where I was now being asked to do things that would go directly against what is the truth and what I am confident is best for children that I’m educating — and best for parents and best for myself — I knew it was time to speak up and not just bow down and go along with it like so many are feeling pressured and compelled to do,” she continued. 

The district asked Tapia to comply with a new rule that would require that she use students’ preferred pronouns, not tell parents if students were identifying as a gender different than their biological sex, and allow students to use their preferred bathroom regardless of their biological sex. She sought religious accommodations, but the board refused, firing her rather than accommodating her religious beliefs. 

Tapia said it was “scary” to be in that position, but she believed it would go against biblical teaching to “cave to the fear.”

“It really stretched me, and I had to really, really lean on the Lord like never before and look at what his word says and what the best thing for me to do in this situation — even if it was going to be the sacrificial thing, even if it was going to turn my life upside down,” she said.

Tapia said it wasn’t easy to take the risk, but the “timing” worked out, and now she gets to home-school her young children — ages 6, 4, and 2 — while heading the “Teachers Don’t Lie” program, encouraging teachers “not be compelled to lie in any way.” 

“We shouldn’t be lying to students about who God made them to be, male or female; we shouldn’t lie to their parents or withhold that information from their parents. If their own child is beginning to experience some confusion around their identity, that’s never something to be kept from their own parents — but that’s what school districts are asking teachers to do,” she explained. “Then thirdly, we shouldn’t have to be pressured to lie to ourselves about our own morals and beliefs and convictions — and that’s what I was being asked to do by my school district.”

Bethany Onishenko, legal counsel for Advocates for Freedom and Faith, the nonprofit law firm that defended Tapia, said they’ve seen “a huge influx” of cases of this nature over the last few years. 

“I don’t think we’re done yet. I think that this is only getting worse in our public school system right now,” Onishenko said. “But as we have more teachers like Jessica and more school districts stand up to these ideologies, well, I hope we start to see these cases lessen. But for now, they are raging on.”

When asked what she would say to concerned parents, Tapia said that while she personally doesn’t “typically advise people to put their kids in public school,” she’s “here for” those who do.

“I stand with them,” she said, adding: “I’m there for the parents who are choosing public school. I still think if there [are] children there, I believe Christians need to be there, too: people of morals, people of values, need to be wherever children are, protecting them.” 

Onishenko noted that parents don’t lose their rights when they place their children in public school.

Onishenko noted that “regardless of where you decide to send your child,” parents are still the primary caregivers for their children and have the right to be involved in the welfare and education of their children. 

“Parents absolutely have a constitutionally protected right to direct the care of upbringing and control of their children, and they don’t shed those rights if they do choose to send their children to public schools,” Onishenko noted.

Tapia said she has received a “truly overwhelming” amount of support from people, locally and worldwide.

But in a statement shared with CNA, a spokesperson for the school district said the settlement “is not a win for Ms. Tapia but is in compromise of a disputed claim.” 

“The district continues to deny any illegal action or discrimination against Ms. Tapia,” the statement continued. “As is clear from the settlement agreement, the district has not admitted any fault or wrongdoing against Ms. Tapia.”

Onishenko called it “a huge legal victory” in spite of this. 

“The district did not claim liability when they entered into the settlement, but we still see this as a big legal victory,” Onishenko told CNA in a phone call. “It serves as a reminder to everybody that religious freedom is protected no matter what career you’re in or what job you’re in.” 

“The settlement is just confirmation and a reminder that when teachers stand up for their rights or when anybody of faith stands up for their constitutional God-protected rights, they will be victorious when they stand up in faith … for the things that they believe in and stand up for the word of God,” she said.