A school violated the religious freedom of a second-grade teacher when it fired her after she gave her pupils “magic rocks” to boost their morale, a jury ruled Monday.
A U.S. District Court jury ordered the Strafford public school system to pay Leslie Cowan the $18,000 salary she lost when the school board refused to rehire her for the 1993-94 school year.
School lawyers insist she was let go because of poor performance, but Cowan said it was the rocks.
“I never thought that it would offend anybody,” Cowan said. “I just did it for the self-esteem of the kids. It wasn’t a question I ever asked myself.”
At the end of the school year in 1992, Cowan sent 20 second-grade students home with a smooth glass rock and a note, stating:
“The magic rock you have, will always let you know that you can do anything that you set your mind to. To make your rock work, close you (sic) eyes, rub it and say to yourself three times, ‘I am a special and terrific person, with talents of my own!’ Before you put your rock away, think of three good things about yourself. After you have put your rock away, you will know that the magic has worked.”
The rock was meant to be a morale-booster and had nothing to do with religion, Cowan said.
When her contract was not renewed in the fall of the following year, she blamed it on parents and a local preacher who complained.
“There was a fear in the community of New Ageism and occultism,” her lawyer, Lisa Van Amburg, said. “She had no idea when she sent home this letter that she would offend anybody or that anybody would think she was a witch.”
Cowan’s lawyers showed jurors a note written by Principal Lucille Cogdill in which she stated her belief that parents had removed their children from the school because of the rock.