Religious freedom debate tops Bulloch BOE meeting

Published: Dec. 6, 2013 at 4:22 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2014 at 5:06 PM EST
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STATESBORO, GA (WTOC) - Hundreds of concerned parents and others packed the Bulloch County Board of Education on Thursday night to get answers and voice their opinion on religious freedom and expression in schools. 

Jon Cook, the husband of a Bulloch County teacher, presented a petition with 1,200 signatures. It asks the school board to reexamine their interpretation of state and federal laws on what teachers and other school employees can say, do, display when it comes to religious expression.

"To sit down as a community and discuss the gray areas of religious expression," Cook explained as he addressed the board and audience, "and come together as a community and determine fair determinations of what is appropriate."

Cook's wife, Jill, spoke against requirements by the board that teachers not include Bible verses or scripture in their work email tag lines. She also took issue with a policy that forbids religious displays in classrooms or active participation in student prayer. Others who spoke believe the board's rules encroach on teacher's religious liberties.

Superintendent Charles Wilson addressed the audience before the hour of public comment began. He described some of the guidelines as to what religious expressions are and aren't covered.

"Our teachers can stand near students during a student led prayer. But they can't stand in a student huddle or circle during prayer so they don't give the appearance they are leading the prayer," he said.

Wilson said religious themed jewelry such as cross necklaces are permitted, but printed shirts with messages are not.

Some speakers said they had heard different descriptions from teachers or school personnel. Others said the rules conflict with a teacher's constitutional rights.

"Freedom of religion was created to protect all religions and freedoms of expression. It was not created to restrict it in any way," stated Susan Sneathen.

An attorney from the Liberty Institute told the board he represented several local teachers who opposed the restrictions.

"Teachers have religious rights and we would hope that a school board would celebrate those rights and not censor those rights. But it appears to be the opposite," attorney Jeremy Dys said to media before the meeting.

One parent stepped forward to cautiously support the board's stance.

"I am a sinner saved by Jesus Christ. ... What I read in this email (copy of policy) doesn't attack my Christianity," said parent Julie Franklin. "But if the guidelines outlined here are different than what some have been told, that needs to be addressed." She added the state and federal laws were established to protect the religious freedoms of students and their families from being infringed by any overtly religious practices by teachers.

Board Chairman Maurice Hill told the audience the board had listened and taken note of concerns. They would formulate their reply for their next board meeting Dec. 19. That meeting would also include information from the school system's attorney on application of the state and federal law on the local level.

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