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School official denounced Matthew Shepard play for making Christians look bad. Now he’s suing.

Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death.
Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death. Photo: via Wikipedia

A former assistant principal at a high school in Colorado is suing the area’s school district after he was fired for his objections to a drama department production of The Laramie Project., which he claims is “religiously charged.”

Corey McNellis claims he was terminated from Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colorado in October 2020 because of his “Christian belief and because he expressed his views, 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.

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The Laramie Project recounts the small Wyoming town’s reaction to the torture and death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard’s murder sparked a worldwide outpouring of grief and rage.

The play, which premiered in Denver in 2000, was assembled from over 200 hours of interviews with the town’s residents.

McNellis’s lawsuit, filed against the Douglas County School District, alleges that The Laramie Project “is a religiously charged play that covers distressing material,” including interviews with “Christian leaders, some of whom share unsavory opinions regarding Shepard’s murder, and cite their Christian faith as the reason for their views.”

McNellis was worried about “how the Christian religion comes across in the play,” said McNellis’ attorney Spencer Kontnik.

When McNellis found out about the play via an email to school staff, he replied asking, “As a Dad of a student here and also as an employee in the school, what is my recourse if I disagree with the production? Was this a heads up to see if everyone is cool?”

According to the lawsuit, a series of emails among staff followed, including an offer from a history teacher to provide “a social studies perspective” of the work, and McNellis’ offer “to provide a Christian” one.

The email exchanges were forwarded by unidentified school staff to administrators including the district’s human resources director and the school’s principal. Shortly after, the district’s executive director for the region asked McNellis to stay home because of his comments, according to the lawsuit, and was soon placed on leave.

After further investigation, McNellis was fired by the district, which cited the emails related to The Laramie Project.

The investigation also found McNellis had complained “as a parent” about COVID protocols at the school. One teacher described him as “part of a good ole boys club.”

The Douglas County School District “respects the rights of its employees to freely exercise a religion of their choosing, or not,” said the district in a statement reacting to the lawsuit, “and has policies in place that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.”

“It absolutely never had anything to do with anti-LGBTQ,” McNellis told The Denver Post on Wednesday. “And none of my comments could be seen as that.”

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