A former Colorado high school official who was fired in October 2020 for his objection to the drama department's production of The Laramie Project is now suing the school district.
The Laramie Project is a play about the reaction to the brutal murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998.
The play, which is an example of verbatim theater–or documentary theater–drew on news reports, journal entries from company members and interviews gathered from the inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming.
It debuted at Colorado's Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2000 and has since been performed in high schools, colleges and community theaters across the nation as a method to combat homophobia.
Many of the performances have been picketed by devout followers of religious organizations.
Corey McNellis, who was the assistant principal of Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colorado, claimed he was fired because of his "Christian belief and because he expressed his views, which are protected by the First Amendment.”
In his lawsuit against the Douglas County School District, McNellis described The Laramie Project as “a religiously charged play that covers distressing material,” and said it included 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’ attorney Spencer Kontnik said his client spoke out against the production because he was worried about “how the Christian religion comes across in the play."
When the school's theater director emailed the staff about the production three weeks ahead of its scheduled opening performance, McNellis responded:
“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, his response sparked a discussion among staff members, including a history teacher who offered “a social studies perspective” on the play, to which McNellis “offered to provide a Christian perspective."
Speaking about his lawsuit to the Denver Post on Wednesday, McNellis asserted that “It absolutely never had anything to do with anti-LGBTQ,” and added , “none of my comments could be seen as that.”
The lawsuit also alleged the email exchanges between the staff regarding the play were sent to administrators, including the Douglas County School District’s human resources director and the school’s principal.
He was allegedly told by a top district official to stay home because of his “religious comments.”
McNellis was placed on leave shortly thereafter and was fired following an investigation tied to the staff emails about The Laramie Project.
Regarding the lawsuit, the school district stated they reviewed the complaint and added:
“The District respects the rights of its employees to freely exercise a religion of their choosing, or not, and has policies in place that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.”
The school's production of The Laramie Project went ahead as planned with live-streamed performances on Oct. 23 and 24, 2020