An employee in the Watson Chapel School District has filed suit against the district, alleging that he was discriminated against because of his religion.

An employee in the Watson Chapel School District has filed suit against the district, alleging that he was discriminated against because of his religion.

Mark Leon Essex Smith, a lab manager, had been an algebra teacher in the district.

Smith claimed in the suit filed in federal court that he was sent home because he was wearing a dashiki and kufi, Muslim headwear, and told to change clothes on Sept. 10, 2010. The complaint said Sept. 10 was a “Muslim holiday that marked the end of Ramadan.”

He said the action by Junior High School Principal Henry Webb “created a hostile working environment” and the district discriminated against him because he filed a grievance against Webb and also filed a discrimination charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Smith claimed he was removed as an algebra teacher and assigned as the lab manager for the alternative learning program because of the grievance and discrimination charge.

School District attorney Michael Dennis, in a response filed Jan. 10, admitted that Smith was sent home to change clothing, but denied other claims, including creating a hostile working environment, and retaliation.

In the response, Dennis also said no actions taken by the school district were “motivated by religious discrimination,” and said the district has a policy that prohibits employees from promoting any particular religion “and to the extent the clothing work by (Smith) on the day in question was an attempt to promote a particular type of religion his actions violated a non-discriminatory policy which applied equally to the promotion of any or all religions.”

According to the complaint by Smith, he filed a grievance against Webb a few days after Webb ordered him to go home and change clothes because he felt Webb “had violated my federal and state rights.”

Superintendent Danny Hazelwood denied Smith’s grievance, and Smith then appealed that decision to the Watson Chapel School Board.

On Oct. 11, the board voted 5-2 to allow Smith to allow to wear religious and cultural attire on the job.

A report of that meeting, which appeared in The Commercial on Oct. 13 and was a part of the court filing, said newly chosen board president Maxine Nelson said that “barring Smith from wearing his religious attire at school could open the door to other religious items being banned such as crosses or rosary beads.”

Smith’s complaint with the EEOC was turned down by the U.S. Justice Department, which notified Smith they would not file suit, but the same letter told Smith he could file a civil action against the school district under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Before he was hired as a teacher in the Watson Chapel School District in the fall of 2009, Smith worked for the Dollarway School District as an algebra teacher.

The case was assigned to federal District Judge Leon Holmes, and a trial was set the week of Nov. 13 in the federal courtroom at Pine Bluff.

Smith is asking to be reinstated as an algebra teacher, damages, costs and attorney fees, while Dennis has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.