A teachers union is backing a West High teacher who kicked students out of class for having copies of the Book of Mormon on their desks.

The Salt Lake Teachers Association on Thursday also accused the students of making up "false and defamatory stories" about an English teacher who "did nothing more than follow her curriculum."

But the Salt Lake City Board of Education president says the union's statement is out of line. And parents believe their children will be vindicated.

"We met today with the district, and it was a very good meeting," parent Dave Durr said. "Our hopes are (officials) will vindicate the students and show that it isn't a fabrication."

Last week, a group of West High students brought copies of the Book of Mormon to an English class for free-reading time. The teacher asked that the religious materials be put away. Three students apparently did not obey and were escorted out of class by security.

But the teachers union contends students were told they would not have free reading time that day and were asked to read "The Scarlet Letter" instead. Even if they were to have free-reading time, students had been told they must read a Colonial-period historical account or novel, the teacher said.

School board president Kathy Black has said the teacher has a "fiction-only" reading policy.

The teacher asked the students to put the Books of Mormon away because "it's not appropriate at this time," said Elaine Tzourtzouklis, president of the teachers union.

Three students did not comply and became disruptive, she said. The teacher called security, a standard procedure in Salt Lake high schools. A classroom volunteer corroborated the story, she said.

"It's not because it was the Book of Mormon on their desks. It was because they were disruptive, and they didn't listen to her. She could not do her job," said Tzourtzouklis, describing the teacher as an 18-year veteran with a spotless record.

"The teacher never said anything derogatory against the religion . . . (or) had a chance to tell the parents her side of the story. It's time that the teacher's story be heard."

But the union's statement floored parents. They say the teacher opened the class to free-reading time, and that their children have a right to bring whatever book they choose. They also say the teacher in the past has made comments about religion that have made their children uncomfortable.

"Obviously, (the teacher) has a problem with the LDS people. It may have just gotten to the point where (students) were standing up for what they felt were their rights and beliefs," parent Larry Powell said. "All we ever wanted her to do is teach English and keep her political views to herself and religious views to herself."

School board president Black was as shocked as parents.

"I'm surprised and disappointed that the association has chosen to send this statement to the media. We're still in the middle of the investigation, and I think that any statement at this time, one way or the other, could possibly jeopardize that investigation," she said.

The district has taken over the investigation initiated by West High principal Joyce Gray last week. Gray had interviewed students with the teacher and other adults in the room; parents said that put their children on edge.

Parents have secured a lawyer to accompany them and their children to district interviews. The district has done the same.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com