(RNS) — A federal judge in Illinois ruled that a state school district is not responsible for the actions of a teacher who allegedly proselytized students in a public school classroom, leading a Muslim student to convert to Christianity.
Judge Iain D. Johnston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, ruled that officials of Community Unit School District 300 were not responsible for the teacher’s actions, as he was disciplined and later resigned after being confronted by those public school officials.
The ruling is the latest twist in a long-running legal dispute over religion at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Illinois — a northwest suburb of Chicago — and, in particular, the conversion of a teenage Muslim student.
Yosuf Chaudhry and Amena Alvi, who are Muslim, sued Community Unit School District 300 in 2020 after learning their then-teenage daughter converted to Christianity as a student at Jacobs. While at the school, their daughter, referred to in a complaint as “B.D.,” allegedly met with a teacher named Pierre Thorsen, who taught world history and world religions and also sponsored a student Christian group called Uprising.
Thorsen, a popular teacher who was named Educator of the Year for Kane County, Illinois in 2015, was also named in the complaint.
According to the complaint, Thorsen, who taught classes in apologetics at local churches, allegedly promoted Christianity during Uprising meetings and criticized other religions.
“Thorsen would repeatedly engage in conversations with students before, during, and after school where he would advocate for his faith and cast doubt, belittle, or discount other faiths,” the complaint alleged.
After the couple’s daughter converted, Thorsen allegedly also introduced her to members of his church who offered to take her in if her family disowned her because of her change in religion. She also received a Bible from her teacher, according to a revised version of the couple’s complaint, filed in 2023.
The couple alleged the district should have been aware that Thorsen had promoted Christianity for years and used his classroom to allegedly proselytize students.
In his answer to the lawsuit filed by Chaudhry and Alvi, Thorsen acknowledged giving lectures in churches but denied using his role as a teacher to try to convert students. He also denied that he criticized non-Christian faiths but did acknowledge giving the couple’s daughter a Bible after she requested one. He also said she had used a borrowed Bible during Uprising meetings. He acknowledged putting the daughter in touch with people outside the school who could help her if her parents were angered by the conversion.
“The goal was reconciliation and not legal emancipation,” according to an answer to the parents’ complaint. “The Bible and contact information were provided after B.D. already professed conversion to Christianity, and after B.D. read the Bible on her cell phone provided by her parents.”
Thorsen defended discussions of religion in a public school and said he did not try to persuade B.D. to convert but instead suggested she speak to other Muslims about her faith questions.
After Chaudhry and Alvi told their story to the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, Thorsen sued the couple for defamation.
School officials argued that they confronted Thorsen about his actions after Chaudhry and Alvi complained and that he was disciplined and resigned soon afterward.
Johnston agreed. He said the couple had repeatedly failed to make a case that the district was responsible. Johnston also said no other teachers appeared to have promoted religion, making it unlikely the district approved of such conduct.
“The fact remains that when the Parents informed the District of their concerns about Thorsen, he was investigated, disciplined, and transferred to another school — a sequence that hardly raises the reasonable inference that the District had previously known of and ratified Thorsen’s conduct,” Johnston wrote in his order, dismissing the case against the district.
The couple’s lawsuit against Thorsen remains active.
Zubair Khan, an attorney for the couple, was disappointed in the judge’s ruling.
“We disagree with this decision and we will appeal it,” he said. That appeal will have to wait, he added, until the case against Thorsen is decided.
The place of religion in public schools has long been contentious and often led to drawn-out legal battles. While student-led religious groups are allowed at schools, and outside groups can run religious activities on weekends or after school, teachers and other school officials are barred from promoting their faith to students.
Last fall, Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach in Washington state, returned to the sidelines after the Supreme Court ruled his postgame prayers on the field were allowed under the U.S. Constitution. Kennedy, who had fought a long legal battle to regain his job as a coach, resigned soon after his brief return to the sidelines.
Thorsen has also sued the school district, alleging school officials discriminated against his Christian faith and saying they misled him into thinking he would be fired if he did not resign. In his lawsuit against the district, Thorsen claims that any discussion of religion took place in a “legitimate pedagogical way” and that he was pressured to quit because talking about Christianity made people uncomfortable.
More than 4,000 people signed a Change.org petition in support of Thorsen after he resigned.
Thorsen’s attorney declined to comment.
Johnston had previously dismissed some of Thorsen’s claims against the school district but an amended complaint in the case was filed in late December.
That complaint alleges school officials restricted Thorsen’s ability to talk about religion with his students. According to a letter filed as an exhibit in his lawsuit against the district, Thorsen was told not to give preferential treatment to any particular religion in his classes and told not to sponsor or participate in student religious clubs. He was also told to end a Bible study that met in his classroom.
“Defendant otherwise created a hostile environment, intolerable conditions, and undue restrictions against Christianity,” Thorsen’s attorneys alleged in their recent complaint.