Timeline of events
How did the religious expression debate come to the forefront in Bulloch County Schools? Here is a synopsis of how it started:
April 9: Legal staff for Americans United for Separation of Church and State sends a letter addressed to Statesboro High School Principal Marty Waters and Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson. In the letter, the legal staff said they had received a complaint about the inclusion of prayers at SHS events and teacher participation in those events. It said the band had several prayer practices sanctioned and led by band director Lee Collins and cited this as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” and asked the school system to stop these prayers.
May 7: Wilson sends a letter to Americans United in response. Wilson said that after home football fames, some players gather for a postgame prayer “that is entirely student initiated and does not involve the participation of any District employees.” He added that the prayer is “strictly voluntary” and not the result of “encouragement or pressure” by district employees. Wilson said Collins directs the band to stand before it performs the school’s alma mater, but only to allow the band to prepare for the performance and is not at all connected to the football players’ prayer. None of these actions, Wilson said, is a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Oct. 4: Americans United legal staff sends another letter, this time to Wilson, Waters and Portal Middle High School Principal Shawn Haralson. The staff said the same complainant sent them a photograph showing SHS “Vice Principals Bobby Costlow and Tanita Peak” participating in the football players’ prayer. That complainant also sent another picture “that appears to show District personnel from Portal Middle & High School praying with students after a football game this season.” Americans United further asserted that these are Establishment Clause violations, and that “it appears that these violations may be widespread within the School District.” The organization again asked Wilson, Waters and Haralson to “put a stop to the participation in prayers by school staff and both Statesboro High School and Portal Middle & High School” and further requested a district investigation “into all the football programs in the District to ensure that no other schools are violating the Constitution in this manner.”
Oct. 30: Wilson responds to Americans United. He points out that the organization’s Oct. 4 letter references “participation” in student prayers by district employees, but “does not include any allegation that District employees are leading or directing the prayers.” One of the photographs the organization referenced “is undated and was copied from a third-party Facebook page,” Wilson said, leaving “obvious questions ... as to the date and context of the photograph.” He said the district notified the one employee depicted in the photo “that he should not actively participate in student prayers or take a position in the middle of a prayer circle,” and that another adult in the photo “is not an employee of the District and his actions cannot be attributed to the District.” Wilson said Americans United’s objection to the SHS football players’ postgame prayer “appears to require the District and its employees to adopt a position of hostility towards student prayer.” But Wilson pointed out that the Establishment Clause “does not prevent a District employee from ‘treating students’ religious beliefs and practices with deference and respect; indeed, the constitution requires this. Nothing compels ... employees to make their non-participation vehemently obvious or to leave the room when students pray ...” But “if while acting in their official capacities, [the] employees join hands in a prayer circle or oth-erwise manifest approval and solidarity with student religious exercises, they cross the line between respect for religion and endorsement of religion.” These quotes are from Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, a 1995 ruling made by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At the end of his letter, Wilson said that while the district believes it hasn’t violated the Establishment Clause, “it has taken the precaution of notifying District employees that they are not permitted to actively participate in student prayers in a manner that would signify endorsement of the students’ religious expression.”
November: Wilson reminds principals during an administrative meeting of what the Establishment Clause allows and doesn’t allow, according to case and constitutional law. During that meeting, he tells principals they should direct employees not to have religious references on signature lines of messages from their school board email accounts, remove religious references and items from their desks and not actively participate in student-led prayer.
Nov. 18: Statesboro resident Jon Cook files a request with the school system seeking records “pertaining to the Board of Education’s decision on restrictions of faculty and staff regarding religious display,” including copies of the Americans United complaints and district replies to those complaints.
Nov. 20: Bulloch County school system provides Cook the requested documents.
Late November: Cook creates a Facebook group, Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties. As of Thursday, the group included 2,912 members, some of whom are from out-of-state.
Monday: Wilson calls a special school board meeting to receive input from board members concerning a statement he planned to make to district employees and the news media regarding what employees can and cannot do concerning expressing their religious faith. He issues that statement after the meeting, asserting that he merely is reminding employees of what constitutional and case law says regarding the Establishment Clause and is not anything new.
Thursday: Cook presents a petition to the school board “concerning religious liberties.” The petition states that Bulloch County residents believe the school system has infringed on its civil liberties because of board “guidelines in religious expression” including teachers being required to remove Scripture from their email signature lines; teachers not being allowed to have any religious items or Scripture posted in their classrooms, on their desks, or on their computers; and teachers being required to remove themselves from student-led prayers. The petition urges the board to appoint a group of people “from across the religious and political spectrum to serve as a liaison between the community and (board)” to determine policies and resolve conflicts regarding religious expression in the school system. More than 300 people packed into the cafetorium of the William James Education Complex for the regular board meeting, and 19 spoke on religious expression.
— compiled by Jason Wermers
An impassioned group of teachers, preachers and community members filled the William James Educational Complex Thursday night to express dissatisfaction over a perceived assault on religious expression in area schools.
More than 250 people crammed into the complex’s cafeteria, during a scheduled meeting of the Bulloch County Board of Education, to rebel against rules they say are unconstitutionally restrictive.
Last month, a reminder was given to Bulloch County principals, from administration, about what can and can’t be done, legally, in the classroom regarding religion.
Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, reacting to correspondence from Americans United for Separation of Church and State — who received complaints from a Bulloch County parent about teachers participating in prayer — reaffirmed to school leaders 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 doing anything that gives the impression of endorsing any religion over another, through the leading of prayers or other means.
Christian teachers and community members upset by the requirements rallied together, formed advocacy groups, and assembled for Thursday’s meeting.
In total, 18 people took to the podium, during a public comments portion of the agenda, to cry foul.
“My fight is about freedom — taking back what has been stolen from us. We are losing freedoms one by one,” said Robb Kicklighter, the husband of a local teacher. “Our rights are being destroyed — perhaps forever. We can’t let the enemy take one more inch. We can’t be silenced.”
Speakers, one after another, claimed requirements to be an attack on Christianity and a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Each of the individuals lobbied for teachers to have the right to express their religion — to pray or to display religious items or Scripture — in their classroom.
A petition was presented to the board with signatures of people who say they want to preserve religious expression in schools. An online version of that petition garnered 1,200 signatures by Thursday night.
Lisha Nevil, a former Bulloch County teacher said: “I think it is very sad what is happening here. I pray that teachers will have the right to take God to work with them each day.”
Of the speakers, only one — a professed Christian — spoke supportively of maintaining a separation of church and state.
She said she liked the idea of knowing her children were not being subjected to, or presented with, ideas and beliefs contrary to her own without her knowledge.
In response to the night’s comments, board Chairman Maurice Hill said, “as board chairman, I make every effort to be fair to the school board, administration, principals, teachers and students as well as the citizens in our community.”
“In my position, I make every effort not to be motivated by personal opinions, beliefs, or feelings. I have to make decisions based on facts, our policies, and what is mandated by state law,” he said. “The issue which has recently surfaced has generated much havoc where board members, principals, teachers, students, and parents have been hurt, angry, offended and accused of matters based on misinformation, misunderstanding, and inaccuracies. We, as board members, cannot remedy this overnight. It must be conducted legally, properly, and ethically. Your concerns and questions are valued.”
Wilson thanked the crowd for voicing opinions and being an active part of the community.
“We appreciate everyone taking the time to come out, caring, and expressing their views. This is not a situation where we can find an easy answer,” the superintendent said. “Thank you again for being here and caring, and we look forward to your help in making our school system stronger. I believe that we can find our way through community concerns with dignity by being loving, understanding, considerate, and respectful of each other, and then moving on to the responsibilities of educating our students, as we are charged to do.”
On Monday, the school board called an impromptu meeting to address the situation.
Board representatives said they empathize with people’s concerns, but must adhere to legal requirements.
“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. “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. 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.”
The Bulloch County Board of Education, in an attempt to further discuss the matter and clear up any misinformation, has scheduled an information session later this month.
In the meeting, the board’s legal counsel will provide an overview of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and illustrate how it affects the school system, Hill said.
The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 in the William James Educational Complex, 150 Williams Road.
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.