Attorneys: School district likely overreacted to FFRF’s threat
An attorney for a pro-family organization says a school district in northeast Mississippi may have put itself in potential jeopardy in its attempt to “flee a bully.”
Gary Carnathan is an attorney for the Lee County School Board. On March 8, he received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) expressing concern about two items at Saltillo Elementary School, which is part of Lee County Schools (LCS).
“One of [those items] was a scripture in Jeremiah, and one of them was a cross,” Carnathan told OneNewsNow on Thursday. “[FFRF] asked that they are removed, that it was a violation of the church and state matter – and so I investigated, and those things were there.” (See explanation below regarding the cross)
The scripture is a portion of Jeremiah 29:11 – and judging by the picture included in FFRF’s letter to Carnathan, the partial verse is included in a piece of art that does not include the book, chapter, and full verse. Even so, Carnathan determined that the school should not have the items in the hallway and the school would take them down.
The legal counsel for the Mississippi-based American Family Association has seen FFRF in action before. He describes this incident as “just the latest in the continued bullying efforts from this organization in Madison, Wisconsin.”
“[FFRF] just fires off a letter and they use the heft of what appears to be their legal knowledge to intimidate small school districts in rural areas when the truth is there is nothing to this letter,” says Abraham Hamilton III.
He continues: “One particular display comes to mind immediately that doesn’t even cite a full scripture. It’s an artistic rendering – and it’s a complete and utter misrepresentation and really a bastardization of the First Amendment to articulate that that could in any way, shape, or form violate the First Amendment.”
Still, Hamilton has some concerns – not so much about FFRF’s tactics, but about the instructions from district leaders to schools and teachers to remove the items.
“… The thing that is really concerning here is that the local school district could very well put themselves in jeopardy for potentially violating the constitutional rights of their own personal when they begin to make demands,” says Hamilton. “The school district, in an effort to flee a bully on one end, could be putting themselves in potential jeopardy having subjugated the constitutional rights of their very own employees.”
Hamilton isn’t alone in his impressions about the efforts of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about separation of church and state and what the Establishment Clause requires – and chief among those sources of misinformation is the Freedom From Religion Foundation,” says litigation attorney Richard Mast of Liberty Counsel, an organization that’s been contacted by several teachers of the Lee County Schools system.
“They will frequently send letters to school districts – and while some of their material may be accurate, they will often seek to overreach and excise all expressions of historic faith and others from the public sphere.”
Mast offers some specific comments related to this matter involving Lee County Schools:
“… There may have been some misunderstanding at the district regarding the extent and the necessity of purging all religious symbols or personal symbols of faith from the schools – and that’s not required. Teachers retain the right to wear religious jewelry or cross necklaces or even cross lapel pins. And where it’s clear from the context of any individual display that [includes] a symbol of a teacher’s personal belief and it’s not attributable to the school or to the teacher acting in his or her official capacity, then it would be permissible to display that.
“So for example, while it … would not be permissible under current jurisprudence for a cross to be a standalone display in the hallway, [it might be permissible] if a teacher had a plaque or something like that that contained a cross on a bookshelf on which a teacher had a number of pictures of family and other things where it’s clear from context it’s not directed at the students ….”
“We have been contacted by several teachers [in Lee County Schools] who … contacted us on their own, and we’re assessing the items that they have and the context in which they’re displayed. Context is key, and we have reached out to the district offering advice and assistance.
“I think that ultimately there will be a good resolution here, but obviously we have to advocate on behalf of the rights of teachers if school district decisions go too far. We’ve done that before. We prefer to assist school districts that take pains to strike the right balance and don’t overreact in response to letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
Now … about that cross
As for the “cross in question,” Saltillo Elementary School principal Belinda Haynes McKinion sought to set the record straight in a Facebook post on Thursday, March 21, at 9:59 pm:
“A community member visited an administrator’s office. The administrator had a small plaque that had been given as a gift which read, ‘why worry when you can pray.’
“It was not meant to be offensive to anyone and did not specify any religion. It was a personal reminder and encouragement and is not unlawful if positioned in a place that isn’t considered ‘on display.’
“The community member photographed it and sent it to several special interest groups.
“The ‘cross in question’ was in a closed office area outside the door of an employee – not a teacher – on a small canvas painted with her name. Not on a student hallway. The community member also photographed it and sent it in.
“The FFRF advised our district attorney that the items on the campus be removed. We removed items to avoid lengthy, costly litigation.
“I made a choice to be a public educator and serve and love all children.
“Many have contacted their own legal groups and have received info regarding individual rights, that isn’t in violation with separation of church and state. Some things are allowably placed in private areas (such as an educator’s desk, away from public view) that aren’t considered as violations or distractions to the learning environment.
“A key word is ‘proselytizing.’
“It would be unlawful for any educator of any religion to proselytize.”
Another Facebook post, this one from Saltillo 5th-grade math teacher Wendy Harden Crawford, shows a number of personal effects that Crawford said she “had to remove” because of an “email stating we were violating laws separating church and state.”
Gary Carnathan, attorney for the Lee County School Board, says he received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) expressing concerns about two items at Saltillo Elementary School, which is part of Lee County Schools (LCS).
“One of [those items] was a scripture in Jeremiah, and one of them was a cross,” Carnathan told OneNewsNow on Thursday. “[FFRF] asked that they be removed, that it was a violation of the church and state matter – and so I investigated, and those things were there.”
As a result of his findings, Carnathan determined that the school should not have the items in the hallway and that they should take them down.
An emailed memo from Jimmy Weeks, the superintendent of Lee County Schools, offered similar instructions to staff and administrators at other schools under his authority – and provided information related to a “complaint” presumably filed with FFRF:
“Our school board attorney, Gary Carnathan, received a letter from the Freedom of Religion Foundation [sic] concerning the display of religious symbols at one of our schools. A concerned community member took pictures of crosses and paintings with scriptures to attach to the complaint. Despite my own personal feelings, it is unconstitutional, and therefore unallowable to display religious symbols on school property. This means classrooms, hallways, and offices. Let’s make sure this is not taking place.”
Asked whether he was aware of law firms that represent schools for free in similar situations, Carnathan said yes, but that he did not contact them.
“You cannot have religious displays on school property as a general rule,” the attorney said. “There were two things in the hallway and I basically indicated that we could remove those – and I have not even contacted these people back to tell them that they’d been removed.”
Carnathan went on to say that, like Weeks, he doesn’t agree with rulings on these situations but that he feels he has no other choice.
“I’m a lay minister in the Presbyterian Church and have been for 25 years,” he explained. “I don’t agree with the way that the law has been written on this situation, but I’m going to have to apply the law as it has come down from the United States Supreme Court – and it basically says you cannot have religious displays on school property.”
Anecdotal information from employees of at least one other school in the Lee County district suggests that similar items were taken down on Monday.
3/22/2019 – Clarified that memo from Mr. Weeks was distributed via email and that it was directed to staff and principals – not teachers. The term “clothing” did not appear in Mr. Weeks’ email as originally reported.
Editor’s Note: The American Family Association is the parent organization of the American Family News Network, which operates OneNewsNow.com