Jerry Buell is back in the classroom, as he should be. Or, perhaps, shouldn't be. Buell, 54, a devout Baptist, family man and veteran teacher of American history at public Mount Dora High School in central Florida, might as well be the faculty heavy in an episode of Glee: this summer, he set off a national First Amendment fracas by announcing on Facebook that gay marriage is a "cesspool" that makes him vomit and mocks God. Buell's employer, the Lake County School District, removed him from the classroom last week for the first three days of the new school year, pending an investigation of the Facebook comments, then reinstated him on Aug. 25 presumably because it realized his speech in this case was protected. But though he prevailed, his rant may backfire socially by helping to plant homophobia more firmly alongside racism and sexism on the nation's roster of hate speech.
By most accounts, Buell is a good teacher Mount Dora's 201011 teacher of the year, in fact. But while watching a report last month on New York State's recent legalization of gay marriage, he posted a diatribe on his personal Facebook page: "I almost threw up ... Now they showed two guys kissing. If they want to call it a union, go ahead. But don't insult a man and woman's marriage by throwing it in the same cesspool... God will not be mocked. When did this sin become acceptable?"
Lake County Schools found Buell's remarks unacceptable. It launched an investigation into whether he violated the district's ethics code and compromised students' safe and unprejudiced learning environment and whether as a public schoolteacher he breached separation of church and state by, among other things, writing on his class syllabi, "I teach God's truth. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, 'cause I ain't changing!" (Buell's lawyer, Harry Mihet of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, denies any church-state violation: "It's teaching God's truth," he says, "that the earth is round or that 2 + 2 = 4.")
Buell insisted he doesn't have it in for gay and lesbian students. "It wasn't out of hatred," he told the Orlando Sentinel about his Facebook comments. "It was about the way I interpret things." He also argued that because he was expressing a personal opinion outside of school and not in his official capacity as a teacher or government employee, the only thing being violated or compromised was his freedom of speech.
Even liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed. Despite "strongly" rejecting Buell's views on homosexuality, and reiterating its objections to any teacher's "anti-gay statements that create a hostile educational experience," the ACLU of Florida noted that in this case, Buell was "on his own time" and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
What troubled Lake County Schools was the prospect that Mount Dora High School, if not the entire district, could end up associated with Buell's interpretation of things. Officials pointed to the district's new social-media guidelines for teachers that warn, "It is vital that you conduct yourself in such a way that it does not adversely affect your employment and/or the District."
But that hardly gave them leverage over the First Amendment. Clay Calvert, a communications professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Florida, tells TIME that he understands school officials' desire to balance Buell's right to free speech "with the need of the school to perform its education function." Yet he notes the U.S. Supreme Court's assertion five years ago in Garcetti v. Ceballos that public employees enjoy free-speech protection if they speak as private citizens, and when they speak about "matters of public concern," like gay marriage. That includes social media: last year a federal judge in South Florida ruled in favor of an ACLU-represented high school student whose principal had suspended her over a Facebook page she'd set up devoted to rants about a teacher she disliked.
Still, it's hard to blame Lake County Schools for having wanted to do something anything to register its objection to Buell's homophobia and his statement's real potential to make Mount Dora an unfriendlier place for gay students, teachers and staff. "The one thing about social media in this case," says Calvert, "is that at least now people know who this individual really is." And here's where the district won a moral victory despite the futility of its legal effort. Some may argue that by investigating Buell and removing him from class those few days, school officials simply made him a free-speech martyr for hatemongers. But they also made an example of him by responding to his antigay outburst the same way they would have if he'd denigrated blacks or women.
As a result, they've done a lot in their pocket of Florida, if not the rest of the country, to make homophobia, not homosexuality, the sin that's unacceptable even when its purveyors try to justify it as religious belief, and even when they try to soften it, as Buell has so often done in recent weeks, by claiming that while they hate homosexuality, they love homosexuals as God's children. That's not love; it's an insult. It smacks of the rhetoric often heard in the segregationist South, when whites of that era cited the Bible to back up their bigotry just as Buell turns to Romans 1: 26-27 as his own cover. It's one thing to disagree with gay marriage; it's quite another to malign gays and lesbians in the process.
A number of rules reportedly hang on the walls of Buell's Mount Dora classroom. Rule No. 1: respect. Another reads, "A cruel word cannot be unsaid." Buell has every legal right to be back at work but if he's as good a teacher as he seems, his students should be smart enough to wonder if he really belongs there.