God-less emails

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 1, 2013

Principals spread attorney’s advice: God-less e-mails

By Billy Davis

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said this week she was unaware the South Panola School District had advised teachers and other staff to scrub religious references from school e-mails for fear of an ACLU lawsuit.

But the attorney, Bear Atwood, said she is acquainted with James Keith, the Jackson attorney who advised superintendents across the state to use caution.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“He’s the opposing counsel,” Atwood said, apparently referring to Keith’s work on behalf of a South Mississippi school that was in the crosshairs of the ACLU last year.  

The Mississippi chapter of the ACLU sent a letter last fall to West Lincoln Attendance Center, in Lincoln County, accusing school staff of allowing and participating in religious activities that are not allowed under federal law.

The showdown was reported last October by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, which reported that Keith, acting as attorney for the school district, advised West Lincoln to refrain from religious expression.
Keith, who works closely with Mississippi’s public school system, advised the Lincoln County superintendent in a letter that “a school district must remain neutral on matters of religious nature and by allowing invocations, the district is not remaining neutral.”

Keith’s message of caution got spread to other school districts when he spoke at the January 28 meeting of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents.

Mike Foster, the current interim South Panola superintendent, returned from the conference and advised school principals of Keith’s advice about using e-mail, Foster later told The Panolian.
The school principals then sent their own version of Foster’s advice, relayed from Keith, to other school staff.

“If you have a scripture verse included in your signature I would suggest that you remove it,” Tim Fowler, the South Panola High principal, wrote February 22. “This also includes sending an e-mail to pray for someone.”

Fowler further explained in the e-mail that Foster and other superintendents were advised by Keith that “the ACLU is keeping a close eye on this,” and school staff and the school board would be held responsible.

“In other words, you could possibly face a lawsuit,” Fowler advised.  

At Batesville Intermediate School, principal Lashunda Hamilton did not mention the ACLU in her e-mailed message, which was sent February 25. But she cautioned staff there that “school computer equipment cannot contain and biblical references or mention of prayer,” echoing Fowler’s warning.

Hamilton also advised school staff they could be terminated for violating the statute, a consequence not mentioned in Fowler’s e-mail.

School principals presumably sent e-mails from all six school buildings in South Panola, but The Panolian obtained only copies of e-mails from South Panola High and Batesville Intermediate School.