Former Douglas County assistant principal sues district for religious bias claim

'The Laramie Project' spurred educator to send email

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A former Ponderosa High School assistant principal is suing the Douglas County School District, alleging he was fired for expressing his Christian beliefs.

Corey McNellis, a Ponderosa employee from 2007 to 2020, claims school officials terminated him after he objected to the school's theater company planning to put on a play about the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, according to a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court on July 1.

The suit details an email exchange about the play, called “The Laramie Project,” between Ponderosa’s theater director, who warned about the content of the play and offered to answer questions, and staff.  

“Due to language and content discussed in the show (there is no violence shown, only discussed) this is not a family-friendly show,” the email from theater director Kayla Diaz said. “This is a play about perspectives, and we would not want anyone in the school to believe we are making a statement against anything other than hate and violence.”

Shepard, who was gay, was tortured and left to die outside Laramie in October 1998.

The Tectonic Theater Project, creators of the “The Laramie Project,” says the goal of the play is to examine “the immediate reactions of Matt Shepard’s community to the murder and to the underlying bigotry and hatred that enabled it.” The work consists of interviews with citizens of Laramie, both connected to Shepard’s death and not.

McNellis says in his lawsuit that he responded to the email asking if he had any recourse should he disagree with the production and later, offering to give a Christian perspective.

The lawsuit calls “The Laramie Project” a “religiously charged” play that includes interviews with “Christian leaders, some of whom share unsavory opinions regarding Shepard’s murder, and cite their Christian faith as the reason for their views.”

McNellis claims that shortly after the email exchange, he was placed on leave and, ultimately, fired. The suit alleges that Danny Winsor, the district’s executive director of schools for the Parker region, told McNellis he was placed on leave for his “religious comments” and that the email exchange was the basis of McNellis’ termination.

“Defendants’ decision to place Mr. McNellis on leave was in retaliation to Mr. McNellis’ decision to express his views under the First Amendment regarding his Christian belief,” the suit says. 

Spencer Kontnik, McNellis' attorney, has not responded to questions from Colorado Community Media about the lawsuit.

A further investigation resulted in a teacher complaint that McNellis was part of a “good ole boys club” and uncovered an email McNellis sent, “as a parent,” complaining about Ponderosa’s communication on COVID-19 protocols.

The suit alleges these details were a “pretext” to terminate McNellis based on his religious views.

To address the allegations, McNellis is requesting a jury trial. 

“Douglas County School District has received the complaint and is reviewing it," the district said in a statement. "The District respects the rights of its employees to freely exercise a religion of their choosing, or not, and has policies in place that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.”

douglas county school district, lawsuit, discrimination, religious discrimination

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