FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | April 4, 2005
(Bloomburg, TX, April 4, 2005) — The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and attorney Michael Shirk from the National Education Association/Texas State Teacher's Association negotiated a settlement agreement on behalf of Merry Stephens, an award-winning basketball coach at Bloomburg High School in Bloomburg, Texas, who alleged that the school was trying to fire her because of her sexual orientation.
Coach Stephens was honored as a "Teacher of the Year" in 2004 and named "Coach of the Year" in three of her five years as head coach of the Lady Wildcats basketball team. During her award-winning tenure as coach of the Lady Wildcats, Coach Stephens led the team to district, regional and semi-state championships, breaking several school district coaching records in the process. Stephens also received excellent teaching evaluations throughout her tenure with the Bloomburg Independent School District. The Wal-Mart Corporation named her one of its teachers of the year in 2004.
According to Coach Stephens, shortly after Jerry Hendrick was promoted to Superintendent of the Bloomberg School District in August 2003, she was subjected to intense harassment by Hendrick and other school officials because of her sexual orientation. On December 14, 2004, the School Board commenced proceedings to terminate Coach Stephens, with one and a half years remaining in her contract.
"Merry Stephens is an extraordinary coach whose leadership and teaching skills were highly respected on the basketball court and in the classroom," said Shannon Minter, NCLR Legal Director. "This settlement agreement sends a powerful message that discrimination will not be tolerated. The days when schools could discriminate with impunity against lesbian and gay teachers and coaches are past."
In exchange for Coach Stephens' agreement not to pursue further legal action, the district agreed to pay her the full value of her two-year contract. The settlement came days before a scheduled administrative hearing, after School Board President Derous Byers testified under oath in a deposition that the Board's decision to terminate Coach Stephens was based on the personal anti-gay animosity of several school board members. Mr. Byers also testified that several school board members publicly disparaged Coach Stephen because of her sexual orientation, including stating that she "did not deserve to work" in the district because she is a lesbian.
"In my 15 years of representing workers throughout Texas, rarely have I seen such bigotry and flagrant discrimination," said Michael Shirk, the National Education Association/Texas State Teachers Association attorney who represented Coach Stephens. "Merry Stephens is an outstanding and committed teacher. I hope this settlement will teach the board members who set this in motion a lesson they should have learned a long time ago - that God's grace and the laws of this State protect everyone equally."
"My focus has always been to be the best coach and teacher I can be," Coach Stephens said. "No one should have to endure hostility and prejudice. I hope that by speaking out, I will give others the courage to stand up for their rights."
Helen Carroll, Sports Project Coordinator for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, applauded the settlement. "Coach Stephens' courage in refusing to silently endure this blatant discrimination is an inspiration to the many others in her position; she is a pioneer in changing hearts and minds."
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.