When a former deputy principal at Ponderosa High School discovered in 2020 that the school’s theater company was planning to put on a play about what happened after the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, he objected. to production.
Now, two years later, Corey McNellis, who was also the school’s athletic director, is suing the Douglas County School District, alleging the Parker School fired him in October 2020 because of his “Christian belief and because he expressed his opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment,” according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on July 1.
McNellis says in the federal lawsuit that he found out about Ponderosa’s planned theater company production on Oct. 2, 2020, when the school’s theater director emailed staff about the play — called “The Laramie Project” – to let them know the “nature of the play so that if we have students who have an aggressive adverse reaction to our choice of show, you can help us help students understand.
“This is a play about perspectives, and we would not want anyone in the school to believe that we are making a statement against anything other than hate and violence,” the director wrote in the email according to the court case.
“The Laramie Project” is an “examination of Matt Shepard’s immediate community reactions to murder and the underlying bigotry and hatred that made it possible,” according to the Tectonic Theater Project, whose team writers and actors traveled to Wyoming after the murder to interview local residents in order to create the play.
Shepard was beaten and tortured before being left for dead in Laramie in 1998. He was treated at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins before dying. Authorities said he was targeted because he was gay and the attack drew international media attention.
McNellis’ lawsuit alleges that “The Laramie Project” “is a religiously oriented play that covers distressing material” and that it includes interviews with Laramie residents, including “Christian leaders, some of whom hold views that are not commendable regarding Shepard’s murder, and cite their Christian faith as the reason for their opinions.
Matt Joslyn, executive director of Tectonic Theater Project, said in a statement that he could not comment on the lawsuit, but that more than 200 hours of interviews were used to create the play and its world premiere took place at Denver.
“Yes, the play covers some distressing material: the brutal hate crime perpetrated against an innocent person because of their sexual orientation,” Joslyn said. “His characters are real people from widely varying backgrounds with diverse perspectives. At the Tectonic Theater Project, we stand for radical empathy, thoughtful speech, and continuing to campaign, with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to erase hate in our world.
McNellis was concerned “how the Christian religion appears in the play,” said Spencer Kontnik, an attorney representing McNellis.
When McNellis discovered the piece, he replied in an email asking, “As the father of a student here and also as an employee of the school, what is my recourse if I am not d agreement with the production? Was it a warning to see if everyone is cool? »
An email exchange ensued between other staff members, including a history professor who offered to provide “a social studies perspective” on the piece. McNellis responded and “offered to provide a Christian perspective,” according to the lawsuit.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with being anti-LGBTQ,” McNellis told the Denver Post on Wednesday when asked to comment on the lawsuit. “And none of my comments could be considered as such.”
The lawsuit did not include copies or further details of the email exchange, but alleges that the emails were then sent to administrators, including the district human resources manager and the director of the ‘school.
Afterwards, McNellis was told by Danny Winsor, executive director of Parker Area District Schools, to stay home due to his “religious comments” and was promptly furloughed, according to the lawsuit. Further investigation followed, with administrators receiving a complaint from a teacher who said McNellis “was part of a good old boys club”. They also found an email showing he had complained “as a parent” about the school’s communications about COVID-19 safety protocols.
McNellis had worked at the school for over 14 years without any disciplinary action. The district fired him after its investigation, citing emails related to “Project Laramie,” according to the lawsuit.
“The Douglas County School District has received the complaint and is reviewing it,” the district said in a statement. “The District respects the rights of its employees to freely practice a religion of their choice, or not, and has policies in place that prohibit discrimination based on religion.”
McNellis also filed a joint complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year and received a letter of right to sue from both entities this spring, according to the trial.