Abby Nurre, 27, was hired last summer as an eighth- grade math teacher at St. Edmond Catholic School. In August, she responded to a Facebook members' poll in which she was asked whether she believed in God, miracles or heaven.
In response, Nurre answered, "No." Her answers then became part of her Facebook autobiography page, which was accessible only to her designated "friends."
In November, Nurre posted a comment to an online discussion forum, Atheist Nexus. In her post, she provided a link to a New York Times article that, as she described it, indicated the government had spent $2.3 million on prayer research in the past 10 years.
Five weeks later, she was called to the office of Monsignor Kevin McCoy and handed a letter informing her that she was suspended for making "atheist statements in a public forum."
McCoy barred Nurre from school grounds. A few days later, without discussing the matter with Nurre, the school's board of directors fired her for violating a policy that prohibits employees from advocating "principles contrary to the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church."
Nurre appeared at a January board meeting to plead her case. In a written statement, she told the board that her forum posting was not an endorsement of atheism and was devoid of any opinions or advocacy.
"It never occurred to me that teachers were limited in their professional and personal education to only church-approved sources of information," she told the board.
"It's unfortunate that the school fires teachers for getting information from nonchurch sources, then showing that information on another Web site without comment or opinion. ... Teachers are taxpaying citizens and are entitled to think, be informed and take action."
The board voted a second time to fire her. The school and Iowa Catholic Conference then challenged Nurre's request for unemployment benefits.
That led to a recent hearing where Tim Hancock, the St. Edmond business manager, testified on behalf of the school. Hancock said that by becoming a member of the Atheist Nexus site, Nurre violated the principles of the Catholic church.
"She should be denied unemployment benefits for being a member of an atheist Web site," Hancock testified.
Nurre said she never advocated atheism. She said she had to register as a member of the site in order to post the link to the New York Times article.
"I believe in knowledge," she testified. "I believe in communicating with other people of different beliefs. I believe in being an open person. That, to me, is not immoral."
Her Facebook page was accessible to designated friends and she had not authorized any students to access the page or the survey within, she testified.
On cross-examination, Paul Jahnke of the Iowa Catholic Conference pressed Nurre on her religious beliefs.
"Do you deny that you are an atheist?" he asked.
Nurre testified, "I am not an atheist."
Jahnke asked Nurre why she responded to the Facebook survey by saying she didn't believe in God.
Nurre replied, "I feel that opinions on such things constantly change."
At the hearing, Hancock testified that the school had little choice but to fire Nurre.
"There were printouts of the Facebook page and of that Nexus group that the kids actually had," he testified. "When students in a Catholic school are running around the school with this survey and it says, 'Do you believe in God?' and it says, 'No,' well, that's in conflict with what we are teaching."
Administrative Law Judge Steven Wise ruled that Nurre was entitled to unemployment benefits because the school had failed to prove misconduct.
Wise said the Facebook survey and Nurre's posting to the atheists' forum "did not involve publicly advocating principles contrary to the teachings of the church and did not involve immoral conduct."
The Iowa Catholic Conference is an advocacy organization headed by the church's four Iowa bishops.