Mo Better Blues | Miscellaneous | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Mo Better Blues 

A Utah school board saw witchcraft in a coffee-drinking teacher. Now she sees religious discrimination.

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In her final year teaching high school, Erin Jensen had her 11th-grade American literature students read The Crucible, a classic Arthur Miller play that lambastes Cold War red-baiting by comparing it with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

She didn’t know it then, but the all-Mormon school board was getting ready to fire her, having decided she was a witch.

Jensen is now suing the Sevier School District in the rarest type of court case in Utah'a case alleging religious discrimination in the workplace.

The federal office that investigates workplace discrimination in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico recently settled two lawsuits involving Mormons at work, winning for an LDS hotel concierge fired after she complained about being required to work Sundays and getting a credit union to pay $65,000 to settle claims it promoted only Mormons.

“When there was an opening, it was, ‘Let’s call the ward and get somebody,’” said Sandra Padegimas, a trial lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Phoenix office.

Both the cases took place in Arizona. While claims of workplace religious discrimination have exploded nationwide in the past decade, the EEOC hasn’t tried a single religious discrimination case in Utah in at least 18 years.

“I think in many ways the religious discrimination in the workplace issue mirrors the issue of religion in Utah,” said Erik Strindberg, Jensen’s attorney. “It’s a problem, but it’s the 600-pound gorilla. It’s not spoken about,”

Jensen’s lawsuit against the Sevier School District, alleging she was fired because she wasn’t Mormon, shows the subtle ways religion can impact the Utah workplace.

Jensen, 46, taught high school English at South Sevier High School in Monroe for three years, receiving the Teacher of the Year award just before she was fired at the end of the school year in 2003. One of two non-Mormon faculty members outside of special education, Jensen knew she was different, but had no idea the ax was coming and only a faint idea about why until the rumors started leaking out after she filed a lawsuit.

Minutes of a 2003 school board meeting just received by her attorneys tell the story. Superintendent Brent Thorne is recorded recommending against renewing Jensen’s contract for 2004 in a discussion that ends this way:

“She also believes in witchcraft and paints her windows in her classroom black. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she doesn’t hide the fact that she prefers the dark side.

Witchcraft? Jensen had always known her coffee drinking was considered odd. She was the only teacher who drank the stuff, though one part-timer occasionally sneaked a cup saying, “‘I’m really careful about where I drink this,’” Jensen said. Her proposal that students read Steinbeck’s classic but profanity-laced Of Mice and Men had raised eyebrows. She had once been accused of swearing in class by a parent who heard the rumor at Relief Society Enrichment Night. But witchcraft? That was a shocker.

By her third year, Jensen said she was well accepted by other teachers and most parents. Her principal recommended she be rehired and wrote her a glowing recommendation.

The telltale sentences from the school board session were mysteriously left out of the version originally given her attorneys. The Utah Attorney General’s Office, which initially defended the school district, withdrew shortly before the unedited version of the minutes were turned over by the school district’s new, private lawyer.

The attorney general’s office “cannot ethically provide any further representation to defendants,” the office wrote the court. On Monday, Jensen’s attorneys argued in court she should win the case without trial because the district withheld key evidence. The judge hadn’t made a decision by press time.

If Jensen were a witch, her belief system would be protected by federal antidiscrimination law. But she isn’t. She was raised LDS, but left the faith long ago and doesn’t practice any religion now.

Halloween is, in fact, among her favorite holidays. She took the day off each year to take her grandchildren in Roy trick-or-treating. The only other non-Mormon teacher at South Sevier High School was a Catholic who roomed across the hall from Jensen. Students told Jensen they playfully referred to that part of the building as “Hell’s Corner.

It was all fun to Jensen, but to some in the community it apparently was more. Where was she going on Halloween, for instance? Revelations from Jensen’s lawsuit show rumors went all the way to the school board.

In a deposition for Jensen’s lawsuit, one board member testified she received a call from a janitor concerned about rumors Jensen kept blood in a classroom refrigerator. Parents called to complain about Jensen taking vacation on Halloween and giving students the impression “she could believe in some witch characteristics,” the board member said.

One parent, the member testified, “was concerned that some thoughts from the world would enter into the child’s classroom.” Others were upset at “giving kids the option of questioning what their beliefs might be.”

“It’s a good example of how discrimination or bias works,” said Strindberg. “If someone is different from you, you start ascribing ill motives or misconduct to them. She was different, not very, but just different enough so that these rumors started.

Jensen and the other non-Mormon teacher were fired on the same day. Both were replaced by Mormons, Jensen alleges and the district does not dispute.

At Monday’s court hearing, school district attorneys asked a judge to throw out Jensen’s case. The district argues Jensen was fired because of a need to reduce staffing levels, because of falling test scores and because her principal, though arguing Jensen be retained, had expressed some concern over Jensen’s teaching in one subject. No discussion of witchcraft was connected to the decision to fire her, they claim.

Jensen now works part time at Snow College South, the only teaching job she could find near her Marysvale home. Her husband, semi-retired when they moved, now works full time. Still, Jensen retains some humor about her situation. “It’s like 17th-century Salem,” she says, in disbelief.

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