PJI Files Second Teacher Free-Speech Lawsuit Against Grants Pass School District

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – For the second time this week, the Pacific Justice Institute has filed suit against the Grants Pass School District (GPSD) on behalf of a middle-school teacher whose free speech rights were violated.

Ryan Clark is a teacher at South Middle School (SMS) and a devout Christian who spends many of his off hours engaging in open-air evangelism at various events and locations in Grants Pass. Clark believes that to convince those who hear his message to repent and believe the gospel, he needs to warn them about sin and its eternal consequences. This means preaching about what constitutes sin – and Clark holds the traditional biblical view of marriage, gender, and sexuality.

Fellow teachers attending events where Clark has preached have taken offense to the views he has publicly expressed and reported him to his school’s principal in hopes of getting him fired. Following an investigation into Clark’s conduct, the principal absolved Clark of any wrongdoing – Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, in fact, found insufficient cause to charge him with professional misconduct.

Still, despite acknowledging that Clark did not check his First Amendment-protected freedoms of speech and religion at the schoolhouse gate by virtue of accepting employment as a teacher with GPSD, district officials saw fit to try and restrict Clark’s exercise of those freedoms: District officials forbade Clark from preaching about what sin’s eternal consequences, calling his speech “hateful” and accusing him of “invoking feelings of insecurity and fear.” GPSD officials also prohibited Clark from speaking at youth gatherings within the district’s boundaries – effectively prohibiting him teaching Sunday school classes or leading youth group meetings at his church – and attempted to restrict his freedom of association with like-minded evangelists.

“First Amendment jurisprudence is clear: Public-school teachers are as free as any other citizen to speak their minds about issues of public concern, including issues of public morality,” said Ray Hacke, PJI’s Oregon-based staff attorney. “First Amendment jurisprudence is also clear that government officials cannot show hostility toward religious viewpoints concerning marriage, gender, and sexuality. That’s exactly what GPSD did – they even put it in writing.”

Hacke pointed out that in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LLC v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the 2017 Supreme Court decision upholding a Christian baker’s right to refuse to sell cakes celebrating same-sex marriages, former Justice Anthony Kennedy chastised the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for demonizing people who hold views similar to the baker’s – and rightfully so. Hacke also noted that in Obergefell v. Hodges – the case that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide – Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that “many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong do so based on decent and honorable religious and philosophical premises.”

“While Ryan Clark has expressed views that many deem unpopular in this day and age and no doubt make some of his fellow teachers uncomfortable, GPSD officials have no right to restrict his freedoms of speech and religion,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “School districts nationwide are already trying to run a lot of outstanding Christian teachers out of the teaching profession, and if that happens, our education system – which supposedly values diversity – will be poorer for it. That’s why it is imperative that a public example be made of the Grants Pass School District, to show that public school districts can and should be held accountable for disregarding the freedoms of teachers like Ryan Clark.”