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Law firm threatens to sue school system
Liberty Institute alleges censorship of district employees religious expression
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The debate concerning religious expression in Bulloch County public schools could soon enter the courts.

The Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm based in Plano, Texas, which says it is "dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America," sent notice to the Bulloch County Board of Education Thursday evening that it could file suit if the school system does not, within 10 days, "put a stop to censoring the email signatures of the teachers and staff of Bulloch County Schools."

Although that was not plainly stated in a letter to the school board, attorney Jeremiah G. Dys, who wrote the statement, confirmed Friday that a federal lawsuit is an option.

Dys spoke during the public comment section of the regular school board meeting Thursday evening and presented the letter to the board after his comments. More than 250 attended the meeting, and 19 speakers, including Dys, addressed the religious liberty debate.

The school system also issued a statement Friday saying in part that questions raised during the public comments will be addressed at an information session scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 19 at the William James Educational Complex, 150 Williams Road.

At the information session, "the Board's legal counsel will provide a clear overview of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and how it affects school system employees while they carry out their official duties," the release says. The board will also incorporate questions raised Thursday night, and allow for additional questions, during the session.

"It is our hope and intent to clarify the rights and expectations of our employees, so that we can all move forward to fulfill the mission of our school system," board Chairman Maurice Hill said in the release.

On Thursday, Dys told the school board: "We represent a group of teachers and staff in Bulloch County Schools who have raised allegations of intimidation, discrimination and even censoring of their religious liberty by administrators of Bulloch County Schools."

On Friday, he declined to say how many district employees he represents or further elaborate on the nature of their jobs because, he said in an email, they "have asked for anonymity, fearing the loss of their jobs if they were known publicly. Some fear even discussing the matter anonymously - that is the degree of fear among the teachers in Bulloch."

"Should the Board refuse to alleviate the unconstitutional burden it has placed upon the religious liberty of our clients, among the options available to our clients is the filing of a federal lawsuit to restore their religious liberty," Dys added. "Ultimately, that is subject to the direction my clients give us based upon our advice. But that can be avoided if, within 10 days, the Board acquiesces to our demands as outlined in our letter."

Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said Friday that the Board of Education "has not reached a conclusion on how to respond to the letter."

The school system's news release issued Friday asserted that the school board and the superintendent "have not adopted any new policies in relation to religious liberties." However, the statement says, "confusion arose after a November 6 meeting where Superintendent Wilson verbally reminded principals and central office administrators of how employees could and could not express their faith, something that has been done by former administrations as well whenever the school district receives complaints from national organizations."

Part of that confusion apparently stemmed from a Nov. 12 email sent by Julie Mizell, the principal of Sallie Zetterower Elementary, to her teachers and staff.

Dys cited this email in his letter to the school system, focusing on this sentence from Mizell to the school's employees: "As of today, if you have a Bible verse on your school e-mail and/or Bible verse posted in the classroom, please remove it immediately."

Dys said that with messages like this, the school system "has ignored the myriad religious viewpoints of the teachers and staff of Bulloch County Schools and chosen to single out one, single religion and one, single religious text for censorship. Such intolerant bias and censorship that has been exhibited by the Board by its administrators is blatant viewpoint discrimination of the kind that both the Supreme Court of the United States and the (11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) have repeatedly rejected."

During the school board meeting Thursday, Wilson said he told principals the following on Nov. 6:

1. Employees can stand near students during a student-led prayer, but they may not stand within the prayer circle or huddle, which would give the impression the employee is leading the prayer;
2. Employees cannot have religious scripture on their school board emails
3. Employees cannot have religious symbols in the school or classroom unless they meet constitutional requirements.

Also, Wilson said Thursday, the board attorney provided a guide from the Anti-Defamation League containing a summary of case law points and a document prepared by the First Amendment Center called "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools."

Dys concluded his letter to the school system as follows: "We ask that you put a stop to censoring the email signatures of the teachers and staff of Bulloch County Schools and, within thirty (30) days, issue a statement to each of your teachers and support staff reaffirming their religious liberty. Because the Christmas season is upon us and the attending violations are ongoing, we expect a reply to this letter within ten (10) days."

The school system news release concludes with a statement from Wilson.

"Our school system and community have become the battleground for issues beyond our control," he said. The release adds that the board and superintendent expressed their desire to not let the recent negative attention the school system has received nationally "derail the good work being done within our school system or end the open, honest conversation about religious liberties."

"What we have experienced," Wilson said in the release, "is unfortunate and unnecessary and, while it has the potential to tear us apart, it is also an opportunity to bring us together and make us stronger."

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.


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