The retired electric company worker scrawled his signature on the office sign-in sheet and waited in the conference room. The name “Walt Tutka” meant a lot in his hometown of Belvidere, N.J.
To his wife of 40 years, it meant a best friend and admirable role model for their five sons. To his friends, it meant a humble and well-liked citizen who quietly contributed to his community.
To the teachers in the nearby Philipsburg School District, it meant a consistently high-performing substitute teacher to run their classes; he taught 28 of the first 33 days of the 2012-2013 school year.
Yet to Superintendent George Chando, the name “Walt Tutka” represented a dangerous rule-breaker.
When Tutka arrived at the district’s administrative offices that autumn day, he wasn’t signing in to cover a class. He was there to meet with Chando about two policies—distributing religious materials on school grounds and remaining neutral with students when discussing religious subjects. His friend Joe Imhof accompanied him as a witness.
When Chando, along with the district’s assistant superintendent, saw that Tutka was not alone, he declined to follow through with the meeting he’d requested. Instead, the school board fired Tutka on Jan. 14, 2013, telling the media that he never showed up for the meeting. When reporters asked, Chando refused to release the sign-in sheet bearing Tutka’s signature.
Suddenly, the name “Walt Tutka” meant a Christian fired for answering a student’s spontaneous question about the Bible and later giving him the actual book to keep if he wanted to.
A Simple Question
“Walt is a down-to-earth, nice everyman, so to speak,” his attorney, Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute, tells Citizen. “I don’t know what his driving habits are, but if he drives above the speed limit I would be surprised. He’s a rule-follower and always tries to do the right thing.”
It’s a habit Tutka endeavors to pass on to his students. So when a middle-schooler straggled behind his classmates in the fall 2012 semester, he quipped, “The first shall be last but the last shall be first,” in an effort to hurry the kid along.
A few days later, that student asked him where the saying came from. Tutka, a Christian since 1992, told him it was from the Bible but couldn’t remember the exact reference.
When the boy repeatedly asked about the verse’s origin over several school days, Tutka finally pulled out his personal New Testament and turned to Matthew 20:16 during lunch on Oct. 12, 2012.
As they talked, Tutka learned the boy didn’t have a Bible. “Would you like mine?” he asked. The student accepted.
“It was a spontaneous moment,” Sasser says. “Walt’s never done this before or since; these were unique circumstances that may never happen again.”
Almost immediately, Tutka received a summons to the principal’s office, where the matter was referred to Chando. Tutka met with him three days later. The administration accused him of breaking the school’s policies on distribution of religious items and neutrality during religious-leaning discussions.
Imhof, Tutka’s friend for nearly a decade, instantly recognized the injustice. “Instead of sending the student off to the library where a Bible was available, (Tutka) answered a question. That’s what a good teacher does,” he tells Citizen. “Walt was not participating in a ‘distribution of religious material,’ nor was he acting for any church or other religious group.”
The higher-ups at Philipsburg disagreed. While they knew Tutka through their pool of substitutes, they recognized his name from another list, too: The roster of local members of Gideons International, a century-old organization that has given away nearly two billion Bibles worldwide since its inception.
As a courtesy and safety measure, the Gideons in the Philipsburg area give the local police force and school officials the names of anyone participating in occasional Bible giveaways on the public sidewalk outside the school. A Gideon since 2006, Tutka’s name was on that list.
Firing and Fighting
John Stillo, the middle school’s assistant vice principal, wrote his staff a memo concerning the Gideons on May 30, 2012. “It has been brought to the administration’s attention that Gideons may be near our campus to distribute literature to our students,” he wrote. “Please make sure they DO NOT step foot onto our campus at any time. There will be added police and security presence at dismissal.”
Ironically, though Tutka could legally do so, he chose never to participate in Bible distributions on the days he subbed. He felt it wasn’t fitting, says Sasser, and he “wanted to make sure he wasn’t doing anything inappropriate. Walt draws his own line there that he doesn’t want to (hand out Bibles on days he works at schools).”
Still, the Philipsburg School Board, buoyed by Tutka’s alleged non-meeting with Chando, chose to terminate his employment.
Howard Mankoff, the school district’s attorney, implied the board’s problem with Tutka wasn’t about Christianity or the Scriptures. “It’s all well and good to suggest here that it was the Bible and no harm was done, but suppose it was some other, more objectionable religious literature,” he told The Warren Reporter. “Parents might be very upset about that.”
Still, Tutka kept working for other school districts while he reached out to Sasser, the managing director of strategic litigation at the Liberty Institute. Devoted to “restoring religious liberty in America,” the firm took Tutka’s case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in April 2013 on the basis that the Philipsburg School District used Tutka’s Christianity as a factor in his firing.
Initially, the EEOC dismissed the complaint for what it deemed a “lack of evidence,” despite the fact that the district ignored Liberty Institute’s open-records request for its documents concerning Tutka.
But in a rare reversal, the commission re-opened the case in June 2013. Typically, says EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer, re-openings are “made based on the evidence provided by the employee and any additional evidence uncovered by the commission.”
On Dec. 15, 2014, after extensively interviewing Tutka and school district employees and reviewing the documents the school hadn’t made available to Sasser and his team, the EEOC made its decision: The Philipsburg School District had indeed “discriminated against (Tutka) on the basis on religion and retaliation.”
Though the commission recommended that the district pay Tutka $14,000 in restitution and implement additional employee training, Philipsburg has yet to rehire the 61-year-old or decide if it will appeal or settle the case.
Matthew Dowd, a member of Tutka’s legal team at the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein, tells Citizen the First Amendment doesn’t forbid teachers from answering religious questions. “Students are naturally curious about all subjects,” he says, “and teachers must have the freedom to respond to academic inquiries without fear of termination.”
Now that commission officially agrees, Sasser says people of faith in similar situations can know “that the EEOC is going to take religious liberty claims seriously—they’re going to do serious investigation and call it like they see it.”
That’s good news for Tutka, who’s more interested in “serving the community by being a substitute teacher” than being a household name.
“Walt has great respect for authority, peers and everyone around him,” Sasser says. “For him to be have been treated this way simply for handing a Bible to a student was totally ridiculous.”
For More Information:
To learn more about the Liberty Institute, visit libertyinstitute.org.