Attorney claims SP e-mails can't exclude religion
By Billy Davis
The director of a religious-liberty law firm says e-mail messages at South Panola must allow religious expression if non-religious messages are sent by administrators and teachers.
Matt Staver, of Liberty Counsel, was commenting on a March 1 story in The Panolian, after he was contacted by a Panolian reporter for comment.
The March 1 story reported the school district has advised its employees to scrub religious references from e-mails, fearing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
James Keith, a Jackson attorney, urged caution at a January 28 meeting of public school superintendents, and the superintendents returned to their district and shared the warning.
“If you have a scripture verse included in your signature I would suggest that you remove it,” Tim Fowler, one of the school principals, wrote in a February 22 e-mail following an administrators meeting with Mike Foster, the interim superintendent.
“This also includes sending an e-mail to pray for someone,” he added, explaining in the same e-mail that the ACLU is “keeping a close eye on this.”
Batesville Intermediate School principal Lashunda Hamilton cautioned staff there that “school computer equipment cannot contain any biblical references or mention of prayer,” echoing Fowler’s warning.
The Panolian contacted Liberty Counsel and an attorney for the ACLU for the March 1 story, but neither party returned phone calls in time for publication last week.
Staver’s law firm, based in Washington, D.C., represents clients who feel their religious liberty, guaranteed under the First Amendment, has been violated.
Organizations such as Liberty Counsel and the ACLU often battle in federal courtrooms, entangled in an ongoing legal fight over the limits of the First Amendment. Often at issue is the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of any religion by Congress.
“What you’ve got is two parts of the First Amendment — Congress cannot make a law establishing religion and it can’t prohibit free speech,” said George C. Carlson, the recently retired Mississippi Supreme Court justice.
Carlson said the e-mail controversy at South Panola is an example of that conflict.
“If you don’t prohibit (e-mails), you could be accused of somehow establishing a religion,” Carlson said. “If you prohibit them, you could be violating someone’s First Amendment rights.”
Liberty Counsel famously tangled with the ACLU in a 2008 religious liberty case in Florida, when the ACLU filed suit against the Santa Rosa County School District.
The ACLU said two students complained Santa Rosa was “endorsing and promoting religion” at graduation ceremonies and baccalaureate services, and the ACLU demanded public records that included speakers’ notes and video recordings of the events, according to press reports.
Santa Rosa and the ACLU had agreed to a Consent Decree, which described religious limitations in the school district, when Liberty Counsel filed suit to amend the decree on behalf of teachers, staff and students. All three parties reached a settlement agreement in 2011 and Liberty Counsel was paid $265,000.
The ACLU downplayed the changes won by Liberty Counsel while Staver claimed Liberty Counsel had “restored freedom” to teachers, students and staff.
The amended consent decree does show that Liberty Counsel successfully struck language that defined “prayer” as reading from the Bible, and also struck language that would have forbidden school personnel from wearing religious jewelry, such as a cross necklace. The consent decree would have forbidden a teacher from citing the Bible, even for a historic or scientific context, until the language was altered by the Liberty Counsel lawsuit to allow for non-religious usage.
If a public school district is singling out religious messages for exclusion, that rule could “run afoul of both the First Amendment rights of free speech and the Establishment Clause, because such action would not show neutrality but rather hostility towards religion,” Staver told The Panolian last week.
A spokesman for Liberty Counsel said if South Panola teachers believe the e-mail rule violates their First Amendment rights, they should contact the law firm. Liberty Counsel represents clients pro bono, meaning free of charge.
“Liberty Counsel is available to advise teachers and will defend those teachers who act in accordance with our advice,” the spokesman, Charla Bansley, said in an e-mail.
Bear Atwood, the ACLU attorney, was asked about the e-mail controversy when she talked to The Panolian about a transgendered student attending South Panola High. Atwood is representing the student.
“School equipment should be used only for school business,” she said in reference to staff members’ use of e-mails.
Asked if a public school teacher is legally barred from making any kind of religious reference in an e-mail, such as requesting prayers for a sick family member, Atwood replied that she would have to know more about the e-mail sent by principals before responding.
Per her request, The Panolian faxed a copy of Principal Fowler’s e-mail to the ACLU office in Jackson Thursday morning, February 28. Atwood did not respond by press time last Thursday, and she did not respond Friday or Monday after a reporter talked to her paralegal.