Lawsuit claims religious discrimination at Fordson

By J. Patrick Pepper
Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — A lawsuit filed by two Fordson High School teachers alleges they were harassed and eventually forced out of their jobs because their Christian beliefs were unwelcome at the majority Muslim high school.

The suit, filed Aug. 27 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that retired Fordson Principal Imad Fadlallah assigned the teachers the worst students, gave them seemingly impossible class schedules and generally belittled and intimidated them because they didn’t agree with his “personal Muslim beliefs.”

Also named as a defendant in the case is Dearborn Public Schools, because district policy allegedly grants “unbridled discretion … to school officials in the censorship of religious beliefs, expression and associations because they provide no guidelines or standards for their enforcement or the application of their terms permitting,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are Bryan Purcell and Georgene Stergalas. According to the suit, Purcell is an award-winning math and science teacher who helped to implement the district’s physics and astronomy courses. Stergalas, a business teacher, also has garnered awards for her work, including a statewide marketing educator of the year award.

Neither teacher still works at the school. Stergalas now teaches at Dearborn High and Purcell is on medical leave for a condition the suit said was brought on by the allegedly discriminatory behavior he experienced at Fordson.

According to the complaint, both Purcell and Stergalas were targeted for discrimination as part of a larger campaign to rid the school of Christian teachers, coaches and employees.

To that end, the suit said, they were assigned classes that met at the same time of the day, making it physically impossible to teach both; had classes canceled for no apparent reason; and were reprimanded unfairly when trouble-making students acted up under in their classrooms.

In Purcell’s case, he was “repeatedly cited for the poor academic performance of the utter and complete rejects and failures he was assigned to teach, most of whom did not have the basic knowledge to learn, much less complete, the material in his courses to begin with,” the complaint said.

Purcell, a type-one diabetic, also alleges that Fadlallah would not accommodate his condition, which requires eating at certain times and periodic insulin injections. The suit said Purcell provided several doctor’s notes, and that prior to Fadlallah’s 2005 arrival at the school was allowed to tend to his condition. Even with that knowledge, the suit said, Fadlallah began assigning Purcell in direct conflict with his treatment schedule.

Stergalas allegedly became the target of a smear campaign after she directed a student to report Fadlallah to authorities for slapping the student in the face. A district investigation into the 2008 incident found no evidence of the alleged assault, and the student involved later said he was pressured by staff members to make the complaint.

But the lawsuit alleges the student was pressured by Fadlallah and the Islamic community to recant the story, making Stergalas a target.

“Thereafter, Stergalas was repeatedly harassed by Fadlallah and his staff, acting as his agents to harass her, when he did not do so himself,” the complaint said.

District spokesman David Mustonen said the allegations are false and noted that an investigation by the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found no evidence of wrongdoing in the matter. The commission did, however, issue the plaintiffs a “right to sue” letter.

“This will be handled by our attorneys in court, but an independent third party investigated (the allegations) and they found nothing to substantiate the claims,” Mustonen said.

The religious discrimination lawsuit is the second filed against Fadlallah and the district in as many years. In 2009, former Fordson wrestling coach Gerald Marszalek, a Christian, filed a federal suit in the same court that eventually was settled for an undisclosed amount.

There are common threads and some apparent interrelations between the two cases. The Purcell-Stergalas complaint uses much of the same verbiage and makes many near-identical allegations as the Marszalek complaint. For example, both complaints say Fadlallah “systematically weeded-out” Christian staff members at Fordson.

Both complaints also say the three employees – Marszalek, Purcell and Stergalas – were discriminated against because their “Christian beliefs” were not in agreement with Fadlallah’s “Muslim beliefs.”

As for their interrelation, the Stergalas name figures prominently in both suits. In the Marszalek case, then-Fordson Athletic Director Jeff Stergalas was tasked by Fadlallah with firing the longtime coach. But according to the complaint, there may have been some apprehension on Stergalas’ part.

The complaint said that when Marszalek tried to reapply for the job later, Fadlallah allegedly reached out to all DPS athletic directors to ensure they wouldn’t allow it. But the athletic directors – Stergalas at that point had moved on to the athletic director position at Dearborn High – all reportedly protested, citing Marszalek’s three decades of coaching, saying Marszalek “is retiring after this year and just wants one more year,” according to the suit.

Also similar in the two suits are the profile of the law firms representing the plaintiffs and their outspoken views on Dearborn. In the Marszalek case, the pro bono Christian interest firm The Thomas More Law Center was co-counsel. Representing Purcell and Stergalas is Southfield-based attorney and conservative media personality Debbie Schlussel, who reportedly has taken the case on a contingency basis.

Both the Thomas More Law Center and Schlussel have made numerous public statements maligning Dearborn-based entities – from city administration and the school district to the Police Department and nongovernmental organizations – for pandering to Muslims and persecuting Christians. The Thomas More Law Center currently is representing four evangelists who were arrested for breach of peace at the Arab International Festival in June – a case fraught with religious undertones and one that has put local Muslim-Christian relations in the limelight.

On her blog, Schlussel uses terms like “Dearbornistan” when referring to Dearborn and “Hezbollah High” in reference to Fordson. While she did not include either term in the complaint, she does allege that Fadlallah has connections to the Lebanese paramilitary and political group Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State. She offers nothing to substantiate the claim in the complaint.

Schlussel did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this story before press time.