11/19/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mark Leon Essex Smith, Arkansas Teacher, Loses Case Against District Claiming Religious Discrimination

An Arkansas teacher has lost a case he lodged against the Watson Chapel School District for religious discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation.

Mark Leon Essex Smith filed a lawsuit against the district last October after he said he was discriminated against for his Muslim faith. According to the complaint, Smith arrived at Watson Chapel Junior High School in September 2010 wearing a dashiki -- a colorful West African garment -- and Muslim headwear kufi in observation of Eid al Fitre, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

When school Principal Henry Webb asked Smith to go home and change his clothes, citing "unprofessional" attire, the teacher complied under the assumption that his current dress was in violation of school policy. Smith later filed a grievance to the district -- that was declined by district officials -- upon discovery that the school dress code merely states that "the drew and grooming of all certified personnel should be appropriate for the professional duties performed."

Smith claims that in retaliation for filing a grievance against the school to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he was reassigned from his position. The teacher adds that he was forced to work through lunch, without added pay, for 92 days. The suit claims he is owed $1,486 plus interest for the unpaid hours.

But the district argues that because Smith's faith does not require the attire, there is no case for discrimination. Officials also say that the district adheres to a strict neutral policy that backs away from taking public positions on political candidates, parties or theologies, the Pine Bluff Commercial reports. District officials also contend that Smith was reassigned for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons and his salary remained the same, thus suffering "no adverse employment action."

The jury found the case in the district's favor on all three theories of religious discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation, following a three-day trial. District Superintendent Danny Hazelwood told the Pine Bluff Commercial that the district "really did nothing wrong." But Smith says he's not giving up.

"Honestly, I'm disappointed in the verdict. I do plan to appeal. I am still working pro se. This fight is not over," he told the paper. "I attempted to show that I was recruited to improve standardized algebra scores and I did so. When I received my first students, 80 percent of them had not passed the 8th grade benchmark examination in mathematics and after I taught them, over 70 percent passed their end-of-course exams."

The teacher says that he will continue to volunteer his time beyond class hours to educate and tutor students, as "there are some great people there," and his case against the school and district is more than just about being repaid.

"I've tried to be very instrumental in the process of the students," Smith told KARK 4. "More importantly I want people to realize we have to begin to tolerate each other if we want to grow as a society."

Smith's case somewhat echoes other allegations of school discrimination around the country. Cathy Samford, a 29-year-old former science teacher and volleyball coach at Heritage Christian Academy in Rockwall, Texas, was fired last fall after the school discovered she had become pregnant out of wedlock. Samford said she was "totally shocked" by the decision, adding that she and her fiance had been planning to get married, though complications forced the wedding to be delayed.

"I'm not just some teacher that went out to a bar and got pregnant and went back to school saying it's okay," Samford said at the time. "I was in a committed relationship the whole time and probably would have been married if things had gone differently and this would be a non-situation."

Jarretta Jamilton, a fourth grade teacher at Southland Christian School in St. Cloud, Fla., was fired after school officials discovered her child was conceived before she and her husband were married.

After taking legal action, a federal judge ruled against Hamilton, claiming she "failed to prove she was treated differently than other Southland employees who engaged in premarital sex."

Read the full complaint:

Smith v. Watson Chapel



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