If you go
What: Bulloch County Board of Education meeting
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: William James Education Complex, 150 Williams Road
Purpose: This is the regular board meeting for the month. The agenda will include a variety of school board business. Also, Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties is encouraging people to attend.
Reacting to a group of teachers and community members worried that religious freedoms are being stripped from the classroom, the Bulloch County Board of Education held an impromptu meeting Monday to offer support that notion, but reaffirm its obligation to separate church and state.
The issue is expected to be raised again, when the board meets for a scheduled meeting Thursday.
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson called Monday's special meeting to give board members the opportunity to discuss and provide input for a statement he later gave to district employees concerning religious expression.
The superintendent said he felt the statement was necessary because a reminder he made to principals last month caused confusion about what can and can't be done in the public school classroom, and why, regarding religion.
Wilson informed principals during an administrative meeting last month that teachers are not to include Scriptures in signature lines of emails from school board accounts or post religious items and Scripture in classrooms or on desks; and stated that they must act neutrally by not giving speeches or endorsing any religion through leading prayers.
Wilson did this after the Board of Education received correspondence from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which received complaints from a parent that said teachers were taking part in prayers after high school football games.
"The Bulloch County Board of Education has not changed or adopted any policies prohibiting the rights of school system employees to practice their constitutional rights of religious expression," Wilson said in his prepared statement Monday. "However, there has been a recent reminder from me to school principals about established legal requirements to which we must adhere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, addresses these rights and restrictions."
Wilson's statement went on to say: "The Bulloch County Board of Education and Superintendent support the employees of this school system and their rights to express their beliefs and concerns. We also support community-based efforts to seek appropriate remedy to infringement, real or perceived, upon freedom of religious expression with the proper authorities. While we stand in support, we are bound to carry out our official duties."
In Monday's meeting, school officials said that while they sympathize with teachers' concerns, they must follow constitutional law.
"We do respect the rights and freedoms that we all have and hold near and dear but, at the same time, we have to respect the rights of others and the legalities in place," Wilson said during the called board meeting Monday.
Board Vice Chairman Mike Herndon, who led the meeting in the absence of Chairman Maurice Hill, said: "We are dealing with laws that we, as a board, did not implement. I think it is important to get that information out."
District 6 representative Anshul Jain was also absent.
District 2 representative Mike Sparks said he wanted to go on record "as a Christian" to say: "I want to do everything I can to support our teachers' rights to express themselves religiously. I feel like religious freedoms are being taken away. I'm taking a stand for our teachers who are concerned they're being suppressed."
Sparks said he is "offended" by the notion of having expression stifled because of a "minority of people."
Cheri Wagner, the District 1 representative, agreed, but said: "I realize that we must uphold the laws that are in place. I will do my duty to uphold those laws."
"We are 100 percent supportive of our teachers. That is never in debate," said Steve Hein, the District 4 board member. "But we have an obligation, an oath, to make sure we uphold the law."
In response to Wilson's reminder last month, a group formed to advocate for religious liberty in the classroom. The Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties started an online petition that has so far garnered approximately 770 signatures.
After Monday's meeting, the group founder Jon Cook, who has relatives who work as public school teachers, said: "Our issue with all of this has been about private expression. A teacher has the right to private expression, so long as it isn't an attempt to indoctrinate or otherwise influence a student. We support the board and know that they have the best interest of everyone in mind. But everyone has issues, and we can't simply bow to everyone's issues."
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.