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Religiously exempt teachers file lawsuit against Westminster Public Schools

Teachers allege First Amendment violations
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Posted at 6:59 PM, Oct 27, 2021

UPDATE | Oct. 28, 9:22 p.m. — An attorney representing twelve Westminster Public Schools teachers who were put on unpaid administrative leave for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, has confirmed with Denver7 Thursday evening that WPS has rescinded its directive that prohibits teachers on unpaid leave from communicating with other colleagues and students.

Colorado Law Team Attorney Igor Raynik says the change in WPS policy is noted in a WPS letter sent to those teachers Wednesday, following a lawsuit he filed on behalf of those teachers the same day, alleging the school violated the teachers' First Amendment rights by restricting their communication with threat of termination.

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WESTMINSTER, Colo. — It's been more than week since a group of Westminster Public Schools employees were put on unpaid leave after the district told them accommodations will not be made even though they received religious exemptions from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

In total, 16 WPS teachers are no longer in the classroom, and 10 other employees were also relieved of their duties.

Now, about a dozen teachers are behind a lawsuit filed in a federal court Wednesday alleging violations of their First Amendment rights, according to Colorado Law Team Attorney Igor Raykin. All but one teacher are unnamed in the lawsuit in fear of retaliation.

The employees on leave "are not allowed to be on any Westminster Public Schools property, cannot talk to any kids and cannot talk to each other or any other Westminster public school staff under threat of termination," Rayking said.

A directive sent to those employees on Oct. 12, including Ben Helgeson, a WPS teacher for nearly 20 years who received a religious exemption, explicitly states, "During your leave, you are directed not to have contact with any Westminster Public Schools students or staff in person or through electronic communications, or be present on any Westminster Public Schools premises, without the permission of the Chief of Staff. Failure to adhere to this directive will lead to disciplinary actions up to and including termination of employment."

"One of those employees happens to be my spouse," Helgeson said.

WPS reached out to Denver7 after the story aired on Wednesday and provided an email sent to Helgeson's attorney on Oct. 15, which stated he can indeed speak to his wife without any permission from the district. In the email, the district also apologized regarding any confusion this may have caused.

In his 19 years at the same WPS school, Helgeson said he's also made a lot of friendships.

"I was to be forbidden from contacting my colleagues, my students, their parents," Helgeson said. "The emotions are overwhelming."

The lawsuit asks a judge to end the district's policy prohibiting unvaccinated teachers on unpaid leave from communicating with their colleagues and students.

"This is a tremendous hardship for them," Raynik said. "You've already taken away their ability to make a living and also while they're working for the school district, their supervisors are not allowed to give them letters of recommendation if they want to get a job with another school district."

Teachers and staff can only receive a letter of recommendation if they quit, according to WPS.

In a statement to Denver7, WPS spokesman Stephen Saunders said, in part, "WPS is reviewing the lawsuit and denies any wrong doing. All decisions were made to support the health and safety of the WPS community."

When asked about the district's reasoning in prohibiting communication, Saunders said, in part, "Now that a lawsuit has been filed our statement is our only comment."

Another letter was sent Wednesday to "impacted employees clarifying the district’s previous communication," according to Saunders.

The letter, obtained by Denver7, stated "this letter replaces the letter sent to you on October 12, 2021 regarding administrative leave," but it does not clarify any details regarding the previous directive's communication policy.

Saunders was unable to clarify any details of the updated letter Wednesday, citing legal matters.

In the meantime, Raykin said he has also filed complaints of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and plans to file a discrimination lawsuit against the district as well.