More than 50 people attended a Thursday evening information session the Bulloch County Board of Education set up to address the ongoing topic of religious expression in public schools.
Like the Dec. 5 meeting, which was attended by a much larger crowd of more than 250 people, the Thursday session was held in the larger cafeteria of the William James Educational Complex rather than the smaller boardroom.
Unlike the Dec. 5 meeting, in which 20 people spoke during the public-comment portion, with 18 of them saying the school system is too restrictive of employees’ rights to express their religious faith, the Thursday meeting offered no such forum.
Instead, the board had attendees write questions on index cards, and they were addressed by board attorney Susan Cox and Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson. Before that question-and-answer session, Cox provided an overview of what courts have ruled public school employees can, and cannot, do to express their faith in the school setting.
The first question asked whether teachers could keep religious books inside their desks, outside student view, and read them when students were not present.
“Absolutely,” Cox said. “No one is saying you can’t have your Bible in your desk drawer (and) if no students are present for you to be reading the Bible with your quiet time if you’re alone. The issue becomes if you leave it out, or you choose to do that while your students are in your classroom. But no one is saying you can’t have it at school for your personal use. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
What about personal items, such as a photo frame or poem that contains a religious reference, even if it’s not proselytizing?
“If it’s a religious reference and you don’t have a secular reason for having it in the classroom, then it would probably not be a good idea to have it in the classroom,” Cox said. “You can have — for cultural, educational reasons — you may have items in the classroom. … If you have an item in your classroom to promote religion, then it’s not allowed because that would violate the Establishment Clause.”
The Establishment Clause refers to this section of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
Another question asked why other Georgia public school systems have no issues with coaches leading their players in prayers on the field, while Bulloch County coaches must abstain.
“Well, all I can say to that is, apparently, no one has made an issue in that school system about that,” Cox said.
So if it’s not permissible to promote religion in the classroom, why is it permissible to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words “under God”?
“There have been many cases that say that the Pledge of Allegiance is permissible, but it must be voluntary,” Cox said. “You cannot force a child to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
She cited an Alabama case decided in the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, which includes Georgia. In that case, a teacher singled out a student in front of the rest of the class after, instead of reciting the pledge, he raised his fist in the air and didn’t say anything. He sued the school system, and the 11th Circuit ruled that students can’t be required to say the pledge.
In response to a follow-up question, Cox added that teachers can stop students from disrupting the pledge.
One question asked why the board has to abide by court decisions.
“As board attorney, I would have a hard time recommending to the school system that they take on a fight that my research indicated they could never possibly win … to spend taxpayer money to have that fight,” Cox said.
After the information session was over, Jonathan Cook, the founder of Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberty, said he had no quarrel with most of what Cox and Wilson said. He did express disappointment with the board for not engaging in a dialogue with the citizens’ group as well as not directly responding to the petition the group presented at the Dec. 5 board meeting.
Cook also took issue with Wilson’s statement that a principal’s email, which some interpreted as an attack on Christianity rather than a regulation of all religious expression, did not come to his attention until the week of Dec. 2. Cook said he discussed that email with Wilson before Thanksgiving.
Cook also said Cox’s statement concerning teachers’ religious items in the classroom is overly restrictive.
“The moment they ask a teacher to remove one of her personal items that is obviously unobtrusive — a photo frame of their family that has a psalm on it or something like that — the moment they do something like that, they’re going to have issues,” Cook said. “There are law groups that are just hovering (over) Bulloch County right now, waiting for the Board of Education to do something in that gray area.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.