Lesbian Teacher, Under Siege For Years, Wins Her Day in Court

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Court rules California teachers are protected from anti-gay harassment

Date

Date: 
04/20/2000

(LOS ANGELES, April 20, 2000) — A California Court of Appeal has ruled that the award-winning high school teacher mercilessly harassed on the job for being a lesbian can sue the school district that turned a blind eye to her desperate pleas for help, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Thursday.

“This is the first appellate court in California to make clear that harassment of lesbian and gay school employees is wrong, illegal, and cannot be tolerated,” said Lambda Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon who argued the case on behalf of veteran teacher Dawn Murray.

“Dawn now will have her day in court to challenge her school district’s tolerance and encouragement of the cruel disrespect and abuse she suffered. Throughout California, it is clear that our schools should be teaching respect and not standing by while the reputations of fine teachers are trampled,” he said.

In the unanimous opinion issued late Wednesday for the three-judge appellate panel, Justice Richard D. Huffman firmly rebuked the lower court for dismissing Murray’s complaint against Oceanside Unified School District in 1998.

“Murray has alleged a number of instances in which she was allegedly treated differently than other employees might have been, chiefly or entirely because of her known or perceived sexual orientation,” the court wrote. “Under a plain language reading of the Labor Code statutes, it was an error to... dismiss her action.”

The ruling noted that California case law and statutes prohibit in numerous ways the kind of harassment Murray continues to face. The trial court wrongly reasoned that California’s nondiscrimination law applied only to instances of sexual orientation discrimination in hiring, firing or promotions, but not harassment.

“I am relieved to know that I now can go into court and finally be vindicated. This has been a harrowing and sad experience,” said Murray, a veteran Biology teacher who has worked for the district since 1983. “I love the teaching profession. More than anything I just hope that other teachers will not have to suffer this kind of harassment just for being gay or lesbian,” Murray said.

Murray’s lawsuit against the school district is now set to go to trial on the merits. Murray was denied a promotion when a school official objected that someone with her “lifestyle” would be “that close to the kids.” Murray was, thereafter, subject to rumors spread by district employees and utterly false accusations that she had sexual encounters on campus with a co-worker. Murray also endured an obsessive focus on her sexual orientation from school administrators, teachers, and other school personnel, and her classroom was repeatedly vandalized. When she pressed for action to stop this harassment, Murray was threatened with loss of her job. Murray first filed suit in 1996.

“This ruling gives hope that California courts will be as dedicated to eradicating harassment of lesbian and gay employees as it has been in eliminating harassment against other minority groups,” said Darin L.

Wessel, who co-authored a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Murray on behalf of Tom Homann Law Association, San Diego’s lesbian and gay bar association. San Francisco’s Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom also filed as amicus on behalf of Murray.

Despite hostile work conditions, Murray has been a top teacher of high school Biology, earning honors such as a prestigious Princeton University fellowship for teaching biotechnology to high school students and an award from the National Association of Biology Teachers as an Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year.

Lambda Cooperating Attorney Paula Brantner of the National Employment Lawyers Association in San Francisco assisted in the drafting of Murray’s brief. Lambda, the nation’s oldest and largest gay legal organization, is headquartered in New York with offices in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.


(Murray v. Oceanside Unified School District, No. D031662)

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Contact: Myron Dean Quon 323-937-2728 ext. 229
Peg Byron 212-809-8585 ext. 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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