As a member of our community, an actively involved parent of a public school student, and a long-time advocate for quality education, I feel a responsibility to comment on the ongoing religious liberties issue. I do believe this issue is drawing to a close and we as a community will be able to move forward; however, there are a few clarifications that I believe need to be made.
Several people have chosen to be publicly vocal about their view or personal past experience with regard to this issue. The problem is that many of these people have not been directly involved in the discussion or the actual issue itself. Some of them do not even live in our state. I respect their right to share their thoughts, but at the same time, we also have the right to disagree with it. That said, it seems that far too many want to be the authority on a sensitive and somewhat gray issue. There is still quite a bit of gray with regard to this piece of the First Amendment. I have said all along that anyone who well understands the history of our country, knows there is not so much gray, but over the years this precious little piece has been interpreted as people have seen fit … usually by those who are not very religious. History often gives us sound clarity if we are willing to examine the facts. One fact does remain. The laws have been defined over the years — right or wrong — and while they are in place, we have an obligation to follow them. No one in our county has ever suggested otherwise.
It was mentioned in a recent letter to the editor that “what has been missing in the local controversy is a discussion of the balance between teachers’ rights and their responsibilities.” I beg to differ. If this individual had been actively involved in the discussion, they would know that this has been right at the very heart of the discussion. Trying to find the fine line that everyone can walk has been the main trouble spot as everyone involved worked to find a resolution. And no one has ever suggested that teachers should not have any restrictions over religious expression per se. However, any restriction placed on religious expression needs to be carefully examined so as not to breach the First Amendment protecting it.
It was also mentioned that “we” might not like it if other religions had the same freedom to express their beliefs. I conclude that this was a wrong assumption. I come from a family full of many different religions. I myself am Christian. However, if a Jewish boy came to school wearing his yarmulke, would he be told he had to remove it? I would certainly hope not. It is part of who he is as a Jewish boy, and I fully respect and support his right to wear it. I believe most in our community would do the same.
In defense of our Bulloch County faculty, of whom I know many, they have always respected the line they cannot cross. Our faculty have always respected other religious views, students who are different from themselves in any way, shape or form, and students or faculty who do not see eye to eye with them. Our teachers have never abused their position by trying to witness to a student or student group, nor have any who practice a differing belief done so. In fact, the main reason this became such an issue for our community is because it appeared that one religion, and only one, was being persecuted. Anyone examining Supreme Court standings on the First Amendment clearly knows you cannot do this. This in no way means that any faculty wanted the power to use their position to influence students on the matter of faith. We have some great teachers in Bulloch County. It’s about time we trusted them to do their jobs.
When I personally spoke at the Dec. 5 BOE meeting, I specifically noted that the First Amendment was created to protect all religions. No one I have spoken with yet disagrees with that statement. And the Supreme Court has made it clear that Freedom of Religion was not created to take religion out of government, but to keep government out of religion. And I will state firmly, “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” is not the sole authority on the matter. There are many articles, publications, and history lessons from which we can pull great wisdom. Part of being a great educator is encouraging your students to think independently, to research and find their own answers. Leading anyone to one document or piece of research and saying, “This is it!” is not demonstrating good guidance.
Our BOE Chairman recently posted a column addressing the recent situation. I think many of us can agree on most of what is being communicated at this point. I do want to say, though, that I am glad we have had one outside entity involved. There are times when we need them. Liberty Institute demonstrated a heart to help our county, and for that I am truly thankful. We don’t need to treat them like the enemy.
I will close this by commending several of the board members who have been very willing to spend time talking with people in the community and in the schools. We know this has not been an easy subject to address. I encourage each board member, along with our superintendent, to continue reaching out to our faculty and community. It is vital if we are all going to work together for the success of our students. I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful start to the New Year.
Susan Sneathen is a committee member for Empower Ed Georgia and is the president of the School Council at Southeast Bulloch High School. She has worked with Bulloch County schools for more than eight years, served as a PTO president, headed up Project Graduation for SEB in 2012 and served as a substitute teacher.