When a former assistant principal at Ponderosa High School found out in 2020 that the school’s theater company planned to put on a play about what happened after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered, he objected to the production.
Now, two years later, Corey McNellis, who was also athletic director at the school, is suing Douglas County School District, alleging that the Parker school fired him in October 2020 because of his “Christian belief and because he expressed his views, which are protected by the First Amendment,” according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, on July 1.
McNellis says in the federal lawsuit that he found out about the production planned by Ponderosa’s theater company on Oct. 2, 2020, when the school’s theater director emailed staff about the play – called “The Laramie Project” – to let them know the “nature of the play so that if we have students who have an aggressively adverse reaction to our show choice that you can support us in helping students understand.”
“This is a play about perspectives, and we would not want anyone in the school to believe we are making a statement against anything other than hate and violence,” the director wrote in the email according to the lawsuit.
“The Laramie Project” is an “examination of the immediate reactions of Matt Shepard’s community to the murder and to the underlying bigotry and hatred that enabled it,” according to the Tectonic Theater Project, whose team of writers and actors traveled to Wyoming after the murder to interview local residents to create the play.
Shepard was beaten and tortured before he was left to die in Laramie in 1998. He was treated at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins before he died. Authorities have said he was targeted because he was gay and the attack drew international media attention.
McNellis’s lawsuit alleges that “The Laramie Project” “is a religiously charged play that covers distressing material” and that it includes interviews from Laramie residents, including “Christian leaders, some of whom share unsavory opinions regarding Shepard’s murder, and cite their Christian faith as the reason for their views.”
Matt Joslyn, executive director of Tectonic Theater Project, said in a statement that he could not comment on the lawsuit, but that more than 200 hours of interviews were used to create the play and that its world premiere was held in Denver.
“Yes, the play covers distressing material: the brutal hate crime perpetrated on an innocent person because of his sexual orientation,” Joslyn said. “Its characters are real people from widely varied backgrounds with diverse perspectives. At Tectonic Theater Project we stand for radical empathy, thoughtful discourse, and the continued campaign, together with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to erase hatred in our world.”
McNellis was worried about “how the Christian religion comes across in the play,” said Spencer Kontnik, an attorney representing McNellis.
When McNellis found out about the play, he responded in an email by asking, “As a Dad of a student here and also as an employee in the school, what is my recourse if I disagree with the production? Was this a heads up to see if everyone is cool?”
An email exchange followed between other staff members, including a history teacher who offered to provide “a social studies perspective” on the play. McNellis responded and “offered to provide a Christian perspective,” according to the lawsuit.
“It absolutely never had anything to do with anti-LGBTQ,” McNellis told The Denver Post on Wednesday when asked to comment on the lawsuit. “And none of my comments could be seen as that.”
The lawsuit did not include copies or more specifics of the email exchange but alleges the emails were then sent to administrators, including the district’s human resources director and the school’s principal.
Afterward, McNellis was told by Danny Winsor, the district’s executive director of schools for the Parker region, to stay home because of his “religious comments” and was soon placed on leave, according to the lawsuit. A further investigation ensued, with administrators receiving a complaint from a teacher that said McNellis “was part of a good ole boys club.” They also found an email that showed he complained “as a parent” about the school’s communications on COVID-19 safety protocols.
McNellis had worked at the school for more than 14 years without any disciplinary action. The district fired him after its investigation, citing the emails related to “The Laramie Project”, according to the lawsuit.
“Douglas County School District has received the complaint and is reviewing it,” the district said in a statement. “The District respects the rights of its employees to freely exercise a religion of their choosing, or not, and has policies in place that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.”
McNellis also filed a joint complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year and received a letter of right to sue from both entities this spring, according to the lawsuit.