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A teacher at Wilbur Mills University Studies High School in Little Rock was suspended with pay and recommended for firing last week after he showed a portion of the 2004 R-rated film "The Passion of the Christ," which depicts the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in gory detail, during his U.S. History class and later went on a classroom rant against complaints by "liberals" that stopped him from showing the second half of the film the next day. Audio of the teacher's diatribe was recorded, apparently by an unidentified student, and forwarded to the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and, later, Arkansas Times. An investigation by the ACLU uncovered allegations that the teacher had previously launched into similar diatribes against liberals, had once hung a Confederate flag in his classroom, and previously made students write papers on a YouTube video that called Democrats "the party of slavery."
The teacher, Greg Hendrix, also coaches football and track at the school. The showing of the film apparently formed the core of a teaching unit in Hendrix's class, with a list of study questions distributed before the screening including questions such as, "Did seeing the movie change your perspective on Christ's suffering for your salvation and the degree to which Christ loves you?" and "Do you think God's way of saving us (the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ) makes God seem distant and uncaring about man?"
When parents who were told by their children that Hendrix had shown "The Passion of the Christ" complained to the school, the administration told Hendrix not to show the second half of the film. Before showing "Star Wars" in his class instead, Hendrix went on a rambling lecture about the evils of liberalism before the class.
In the recording, which goes on for over 10 minutes, a clearly angry Hendrix tells the class that their rights have been violated, singling out the person or persons who complained as "liberals."
"So here's the deal," he says in the recording, "your First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in this classroom and to have free speech was ruined by one person. A liberal. I keep telling you, when Democrats are offended by something and they don't agree with it, they want to shut it down, they want to ban it, and they want to censor it. So you have lost your First Amendment right that is guaranteed to you by the Constitution to peaceful assemble in this classroom, and to free speech, because of one person."
Later in the recording, he says that the sooner the students learn about liberalism, the better off they'll be. Then he speaks about African-American support for Democrats, saying, "I keep telling you, I'll never understand how blacks can support the Democratic Party. It just blows my mind. All they do is convince y'all that whoever the Republican nominee is, is going to take away food stamps and all this stuff, put you in chains and send you back to Africa. Well, shit. If that was going to happen, they would have done it a long time ago, wouldn't you think? Has a Republican ever done that? No. Here's the bottom line on Republicans, because I am one. Actually, I'm a constitutional conservative. We just want you to get off your ass and go to work and be productive members of society and quit mooching off the government, because somebody is paying for that. Me." The student body at Mills High is majority African American.
Pulaski County Special School District communications director Deb Roush initially issued a statement saying that the school district had suspended the teacher, who it didn't name, with pay pending an investigation. The district later released a statement saying Hendrix had been recommended for termination. He has 30 days to appeal. The Times was unable to reach Hendrix.
Holly Dickson, legal director for the ACLU of Arkansas, said the ACLU is preparing an ethics complaint to be filed with the state Board of Education over Hendrix's conduct. She said Hendrix was terminated as a football coach by the Bentonville School District in October 2014 after, witnesses said, he allegedly called a former player a "faggot" and a "queer." Hendrix denied those allegations.
Dickson said the ACLU received several calls about the incident involving the film and Hendrix's in-class rant. "He seems to think there's one complaint about the film, and I think in general the students realized that this was clearly illegal and over the top," she said. "We've started hearing more. It's not just about the film, obviously, which you can hear just from the audio."
Dickson said that, contrary to what is said on the recording, students in publicly funded classrooms leave many of their rights at the schoolhouse door. "There is no general student right to assembly or free speech to monopolize a classroom or to receive information that's unconstitutional," Dickson said. "The film he was showing is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and parents' rights to control the religious upbringing of their children."
In a letter to the PCSSD administration, ACLU cooperating attorney Bettina Brownstein said the ACLU investigation into the incident had found that Hendrix had frequently launched into what she called "this kind of tirade against Democrats and liberals" during his time at the school. The ACLU also discovered he had shown a video called "The Reasons Why the Democrats Are the Party of Slavery" to his classes and required students to write essays about it, and at one time displayed a Confederate flag in his classroom.
"It seems as if very little instruction pertinent to the course subject occurred in the two semesters Mr. Hendrix has taught it," Brownstein wrote. "Students report that they watch films and videos, mostly, and that no text or other books have been opened."
Brownstein went on to say that she'd received reports that students were threatening another student who had complained about Hendrix, adding that she expected the district to prevent any threats, bullying or harassment. "The ACLU takes the First Amendment very seriously, as well as the other completely inappropriate conduct and words of this teacher," Brownstein wrote. "We also take very seriously bullying against students. It certainly seems that Mr. Hendrix has no business being in any classroom or coaching any students. I find it surprising and disheartening that a teacher could teach almost two semesters at Mills and engage in the kind of unconstitutional and other inappropriate conduct that Mr. Hendrix perpetrated."
Brownstein also directed the PCSSD to a 2003 settlement agreement with the district that says its personnel will not subject students to "religious preaching on district premises." The agreement stems from a federal civil rights suit brought against the PCSSD by the ACLU on behalf of a gay student in Jacksonville who was subjected to religious preaching and forced to read the Bible as punishment for his sexual orientation.
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