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Debate brews after teacher reassigned over anti-gay marriage posts

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Jerry Buell is a former "teacher of the year" at a central Florida high school
  • His district reassigned him after he made Facebook posts critical of gay marriage
  • A conservative group says that Buell's free speech rights have been violated
  • Some online comments slam the school, while others criticize the teacher

(CNN) -- A conservative advocacy group accused a central Florida school system Friday of violating the constitutional rights of a former "teacher of the year" by reassigning him after he posted comments on Facebook critical of same-sex marriage.

A debate continues to brew online, meanwhile, as to whether the Lake County Schools' action this week against Jerry Buell was justified, including emotional commentary appearing on competing public Facebook pages in support and in opposition. The Liberty Counsel, a group that stated it is representing Buell, said in a release Friday that he has been removed from his teaching role at Mount Dora High School and given administrative duties instead.

School officials received a complaint Tuesday about the content on Buell's Facebook page, along with copies of his posts, Lake County Schools Communications Officer Chris Patton has told CNN.

The Liberty Counsel -- which describes itself on its website as a litigation, education, and policy group focused on religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family -- claims the school district violated Buell's free speech rights, and insists that he be returned to his job and given an apology. The organization contends that those advocating "same-sex marriage" believe that "any speech that is contrary to their viewpoint is considered 'hate speech' and should be censored."

"If the First Amendment does not protect Mr. Buell's right to voice his personal opinion, on his personal time, on his personal computer, on his personal Facebook page, then the First Amendment means nothing," said Harry Mihet, the counsel's senior litigation consultant.

Similar sentiments were voiced on a Facebook page opposing the school district's move, demanding Buell be reinstated in full and criticizing the idea that opposing gay marriage could merit disciplinary action.

"I don't understand firing him for expressing his opinion," wrote Robert R. on the "Support Jerry Buell" page. "Someone else in favor of gay unions should be free to express their opinion, he should certainly be entitled to opinion against. Just how much control of our person lives should our employers have?"

But a very different viewpoint was expressed on another Facebook page, titled, "DON'T support homophobic Jerry Buell. Keep him suspended."

"If one of his students is struggling with there own sexuality & him/ her heard this from what he / she thought was there mentor this could send this student over the edge, he/ she could kill themselves or even decide to bring a gun to school," wrote one poster, Julie B. "He is in a role model position he has no freedom of speech while in this position if he wants to voice his opinions quit being a teacher!!!"

Still, not all those on this Facebook page -- some of whom who said he'd been their teacher -- denounced Buell's posts, instead using the forum to rally to his cause.

"One thing i learned from Mr Buell is everyone is diffrent but one thing we ALL can do is come together with LOVE," wrote Reginal A. "Instead of bashing eachother and being ignorant look at whose really being affected! the students of mdhs won't have an amazing educator like mr.BUELL."

Buell's personal Facebook page has since been taken down. But CNN affiliate Central Florida News 13 reported that a status post on it said, "I'm watching the news, eating dinner, when the story about the New York okaying same sex unions came on and I almost threw up."

Patton would not confirm the content of the post, but he said Lake County officials are taking the matter very seriously.

"We began to review the code of ethics violations immediately and yesterday afternoon temporarily reassigned the teacher pending the outcome of the investigation," Patton said Thursday.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Buell said the comment was not made "out of hatred."

"It was about the way I interpret things," the Sentinel quoted him as saying.

The newspaper said that in the same July 25 post, Buell said same-sex marriages were part of a "cesspool" and were a "sin."

Buell did not return repeated CNN calls for comment. The Liberty Counsel said that he "has always been open to students, including those who identify as homosexual, about his conservative principles but has never forced his beliefs on anyone."

Classes begin in Lake County Monday, but teachers are already back at school for pre-planning.

Buell served as the social studies department chair at Mount Dora and taught American history and government, according to the high school's website.

CNN's Melanie Whitley contributed to this report.