Accused Witch Loses Case

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 14, 2007 — Leave a comment

Last week I blogged about the case of Lauren Berrios, a Jewish schoolteacher who was allegedly fired from a Long Island public school due to rumors of practicing witchcraft. Berrios, who is now employed at a school in Georgia, sued the school district for 2 million dollars in damages. Yesterday a federal jury rejected Berrios’s claims that former principal Andrew Albano, a born-again Christian, targeted her for firing due to her Jewish or rumored Pagan beliefs.

“A federal jury in Central Islip, N.Y., Tuesday swiftly rejected the claim of a former Long Island public school teacher that she had been fired because of false accusations that she was a witch. After a five-day trial, the seven-member Eastern District of New York jury deliberated about a hour before rejecting all of Lauren Berrios’ allegations against the Hampton Bays School District and her demand for millions in damages…”

Contributing to her loss was the fact that five witnesses who came forward to testify on Berrios’s behalf came too late in the case to be admitted, and were not allowed by the judge to testify. The judge also voiced concerns that you can’t file a claim of religious discrimination for a “perceived” faith.

“Wexler noted that while the federal civil rights statute “provides for a cause of action for those discriminated against on account of their religious beliefs, it makes no specific provision including those who are ‘perceived’ to belong to a particular religion as falling within a protected class.” … Berrios had insisted that she was not an adherent of Wicca. Ironically, Wexler pointed out in a footnote that self-professed witches are protected by the law’s “broad” definition of religious belief.”

During the trial, the school district claimed Berrios had “serious pre-existing mental health issues”, a claim that was echoed by an anonymous commenter on my blog.

“Lauren Berrios is a woman with severe mental problems. It’s not the point whether or not she is a witch or people thought she was a witch. Everyone in this case admits and knows she is not a witch. The point is that she was fired becuase she made up stories about her son cutting off his fingers and her husband being in a plane crash. She also made up the stories that people thought she was a witch … She deserved to be fired for being mentally unstable.”

On the same comments thread two current students and a current colleague posted defenses of Berrios as a good and professional teacher. Which brings up two competing narratives. Is Berrios a good teacher who was run out of a predominately Christian school due to rumors of witchcraft (and perhaps mental illness), or is Berrios a mentally unbalanced woman who said inappropriate things to her students? It is not known if Berrios will appeal the verdict and try to get the new witnesses rejected from this trial heard.

Jason Pitzl-Waters