State Labor Commissioner Supports Gay Bakersfield Teacher

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Ruling: school district violated state law by removing students from his classroom
March 9, 1999

(LOS ANGELES, March 9, 1999) -- The California Labor Commissioner ordered a Bakersfield school district to stop removing eighth graders from a science class because the teacher is gay, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday.

The Commissioner ruled that Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District officials' yanking 15 students from the classroom of award-winning teacher James D. Merrick, Ph.D. was a violation of state law. The California labor code prohibits employment discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon of Lambda's Western Regional Office said, "The decision vindicates all of us who believe that bigotry and hate have no place in the classroom." Lambda assisted Merrick in the administrative process, and continues to represent him in related legal matters.

Last year, after Merrick challenged anti-gay comments by a Kern County Human Relations commissioner, some parents demanded that the students be removed from the class, solely because of Merrick's perceived sexual orientation.

The 15 students removed from the class were assigned to study hall because Merrick is the school's only 8th grade science instructor. Over 100 students remain in his six science classes. The 40-year teaching veteran is a recent recipient of the Teacher of the Year Award from the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.

Merrick filed a complaint with the state Labor Commissioner, whose March 8 decision states that the school district's actions "fostered 'different treatment in an aspect of employment' based upon [Merrick]'s perceived sexual orientation."

The state Labor Commissioner ordered Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District to "cease and desist" from removing students from Merrick's class because he is gay. School officials also are prohibited from "engaging in discrimination or different treatment in employment or opportunity based on actual or perceived sexual orientation."

Lambda and the California Teachers Association are planning a lawsuit on Merrick's behalf.

Said Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn from Lambda's New York Headquarters, "Schools need to learn about justice so they can teach it to their students. If schools themselves can't be fair and non-discriminatory, how can they teach those values to kids? Merrick's students are far better served by this ruling than they were by missing science class rather than be taught by a gay man."

(Merrick v. Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District, No. 99-03985)


Contact: Myron Dean Quon 213-937-2728; Peg Byron 212-809-8585, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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