Law firm threatens to sue school system
(posted Dec. 6, contains links to previous coverage)
A letter by the Bulloch County Board of Education's attorney appears to have headed off the immediate threat of a lawsuit.
In response to a letter from Liberty Institute, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm, board attorney Susan W. Cox said the school board will soon limit the signature lines of employees using school system email to basic contact information.
The school system also released a statement Thursday evening explaining in part that Cox's letter was prepared during a three-hour closed session by the school board Monday evening.
"The Board's directive in asking teachers to remove scripture from the k.12 email system is entirely in keeping with the constitutional requirements of the Establishment Clause," she wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday and addressed to Liberty Institute attorney Jeremiah G. Dys. "Nevertheless, to ensure complete neutrality and impartiality in the administration of the k.12 email system, the School Board intends to adopt a policy that limits the k.12 signature line to the teacher's name, class, and school; no affirmations of any kind will be allowed from that date forward. Such a policy will ensure that no particular viewpoint is expressed by anyone using the k.12 email system."
In email communication Thursday with the Statesboro Herald, Dys acknowledged that Cox's letter satisfies the legal issues he raised in the original letter he wrote, dated Dec. 5, to the school system, but he expressed disappointment in the course of action the board plans to follow.
"In terms of taking legal action on the email signatures, if the board elects to close that forum — which they can, but by no means are they required to — then our clients have no immediate claim," Dys said. "But, given the outpouring of support for religious liberty voiced by the community just a week ago, I would think the board would be working to expand First Amendment freedoms, not contract them. We are just asking the board for a little tolerance."
Bulloch County resident Jonathan Cook, the founder of Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberty, expressed satisfaction with Cox's letter, but also a desire that the board have a two-way conversation with the group members.
"For the most part, we are pleased with the BOE's response to the letter from Liberty Institute," Cook said. "They have affirmed to teachers that they do not have to ‘check their rights at the door,' which was our main issue all along. Our administrators have always handled complaints within the school system well; that's why there has been only one formal complaint in the last year, and that came from a single individual."
He also said: "While I am no proponent of censoring anyone's freedom of expression, I guess that I understand the thought process of a generic signature line being the best response in this situation, especially with all of the national attention we are getting right now. I hope that as we move forward, the BOE will be willing to not only listen but will also be willing to engage in open dialogue about issues that affect us so personally."
Dys added that Liberty is "still investigating other issues related to this and monitoring the entire situation."
"We rarely see a board of education so intent on restricting religious expression that they are now willing to restrict all First Amendment expression," he wrote in an email to the Herald. "Why is the board so intolerant of First Amendment expression by its teachers? Why so harsh in response to the people who elected them to office?"
The school system's Thursday news release quoted an email Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson sent to employees Thursday afternoon, in which he shared Cox's letter to Dys. Wilson said that while he and the Board of Education had not changed or adopted any new policies restricting employees' constitutional rights to religious expression, "they had come to learn both from employees and concerned citizens that there were some mistakes and misinterpretations in how his November 6 reminder to administrators was received."
In his Thursday email, Wilson told employees that they:
1. Do not have to step away from or turn their back on student-led prayer; they simply should not be in position where it might appear an employee is leading the prayer.
2. Are free to pray by themselves at school or gather with their peers when students are not present.
3. May wear "non-obtrusive religious jewelry."
4. Are free to teach students about different faiths, cultures and holiday traditions, but that "the school system does have to limit religious symbols, scripture and phrases on email signatures and in work spaces unless they are being used to teach a cultural lesson or advance some educational purpose."
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.