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Missouri Family E-News

July 22, 2014


Fayette R-III Settles Suit Over Prayer 


A Missouri school district  has agreed in federal court to adopt policies restricting the religious expression of teachers and school district staff.

The Fayette R-III School District, which is located in Howard County, has entered into a consent decree in U.S District Court as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association.

The lawsuit charged that a teacher who was the faculty adviser for a student religious club had prayed with students before class.  The lawsuit also claimed that meetings of the club had been announced over the school's intercom system.

Under the consent decree, the school district has agreed not to "promote prayer or religious activity."  The school district is required to modify its Student Teacher Handbook to prohibit teachers from participating in prayer or religious activities at student meetings.

The court settlement also prohibits school district employees from placing religious books, materials, or items in a place where students would be likely to see them.

District Superintendent Tamara Kimball says the district still believes that most of the accusations made by the American Humanist Association were without merit.

"After months of investigation and interviews the district determined that virtually every allegation made by the plaintiffs was false, misleading, or taken out of context."

Kimball says the district acknowledged the issue of the intercom announcements, and decided it "would be a simple concession to make so we could put this lawsuit behind us and continue our mission of educating students."

Kimball admitted that the district could not afford the legal costs of sustaining its defense of the lawsuit.  However, the district did agree to pay $41,000 in legal fees incurred by the American Humanist Association.

The teacher and principal who were the subject of the complaint are no longer employed by the school district.  The settlement was reached in the court of U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughery. 

                                                
Federal Judge Rules Against Christian Educator    

 

A federal judge has ruled that a New York School District did not violate a teacher's free speech rights when it forced her to remove inspirational messages from her classroom.

 

The case involves Joelle Silver, a high school science teacher at the Cheektowaga School District in suburban Buffalo.   School district officials had sent Silver an eight-page "counseling letter" demanding that she remove posters from her classroom that included religious themes.

 

The letter took issue with Silver's "apparent belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible as the word of God."  The school district acted following a formal complaint filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. 

 

One of the posters contained a quote from President Ronald Reagan in which he said:  "If ever we forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under."

 

Another contained a benign message from 1 Corinthians 16:  "Be on guard.  Stand true to what you believe.  Be courageous.  Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love."

 

The "counseling" letter also instructed Silver to remove four small sticky notes from the back of her desk that contained Scriptural quotations.  She was also pressured to resign as the faculty adviser to the students' Bible Study Club.

 

Silver had charged the school district with selective enforcement of restrictions on the display of materials by school district staff.  She claimed that other teachers were allowed to display items in their classrooms reflecting their personality, opinions, and values. 

 

She pointed out that a high school social worker was allowed to display posters inside and outside her office from the Human Rights Campaign promoting the homosexual rights agenda.  

   

U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Foschio concluded that the school district did not violate Silver's free speech rights under the First Amendment, and that the actions of school officials did not demonstrate hostility toward religion.

 

Robert Muise, attorney for the American Freedom Law Center, castigated the judge's ruling.  "It is outrageous that the school district forced Silver to cleanse her classroom and her actions of anything religious in nature, as if her Christian faith was an infectious disease that needed to be eradicated."

 

"The district's actions are indeed overtly hostile toward religion and convey an impermissible, government-sponsored message of disapproval of the Christian faith," Muise added.  "Because of the school district's draconian restrictions, Silver must keep her faith hidden at all times."

 

Muise says the legal fight is not over.  The American Freedom Law Center has filed objections in court to the "recommendation and report" of the federal magistrate judge. 

 

  

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Governor Signs Bill Protecting Student
 Religious Freedom
  

Students in Missouri public schools will have some of the strongest religious freedom protections in the country as a result of legislation signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon.  Earlier this month the Governor signed House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act.

House Bill 1303 was sponsored by Representative Elijah Haahr of Springfield.  It had been approved by the Missouri House by a vote of 131-16 and by the Missouri Senate by a vote of 30-1.  Haahr says the purpose of his legislation is to give school districts clear guidelines as to the scope of the religious free exercise rights of public school students.

Under the new law, school districts are prohibited from discriminating against a student on the basis of religious expression or a religious viewpoint.  A student is entitled to share a religious viewpoint to the same degree a secular viewpoint is expressed on an otherwise permissible subject.

Students are also assured the right to pray or engage in religious activities before, during, and after the school day to the same degree that nonreligious activities or expression are permitted.  Such activities may not be disruptive of schedule instructional time or impede access or mobility on the school campus.

The new law makes clear that students are free to organize and participate in prayer groups and religious clubs to the same extent students are permitted to participate in other noncurricular programs and activities.  School facilities must be made available for such religious groups in the same manner that those facilities are made available for noncurricular activities of a secular nature.

The Student Religious Liberties Act also protects the free speech rights of students in the classroom setting.  Students may share their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, and classroom presentations so long as that expression is relevant to the subject matter at hand.   Teachers and school district officials may not penalize a student based on the religious content of their oral or written assignments.

Students would also be assured the right to wear clothing, accessories, and jewelry with religious messages or symbols to the same degree that any nonreligious messages or symbols are permitted.  At the same time school officials would retain the authority to take actions necessary to maintain order and discipline on the campus and to protect the safety of students.

The new statute promoted by Representative Haahr builds on the religious liberty constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in August of 2012.  Amendment 2, often referred to as the Prayer Amendment, provided explicit guarantees in Missouri's Constitution protecting the religious free exercise rights of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren.

In the school setting, it assured students the right to pray and acknowledge God on a voluntary basis so long as such religious expression was not disruptive and abided within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech.  Amendment 2 also stated that "students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work."

Amendment 2 was endorsed by Missouri voters by an astounding margin of 83 to 17 percent, and won decisive support of a majority of voters in every county in the state and the city of St. Louis as well.

Representative Haahr's efforts occur against a backdrop of repeated incidents across the country in which school officials seek to squelch religious expression in and out of the classroom.  Earlier this year, students at a high school in Potosi were allegedly told that they could not bring their Bibles to school.

Representative Haahr believes, as do we, that most of these episodes are the result of misunderstanding by teachers and principals of how the First Amendment applies in school district settings.  School administrators are fed a steady diet of false information by groups like the ACLU, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

These atheist groups work hard to convince school officials that they have a legal obligation to stifle and suppress any and all religious speech or religious activity in the public schools.  To the contrary, federal courts have made clear that students do not shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse door.

"I don't believe that most school districts that have these problems intend to overstep the line," Representative Haahr says.  "I think it is just a matter that they don't know exactly what those lines are, and I would like to provide them with clear guidance."

We commend Representative Haahr for his outstanding leadership on this issue.  We also salute Senator Ryan Silvey of Clay County for steering this bill to passage in the Missouri Senate.  We express our thanks to all those legislators who voted for this new law.  That includes some lawmakers who opposed Amendment 2, but chose to acknowledge the overwhelming sentiment of the people of Missouri on this issue.

Missouri has always been known as a state with a very strong pro-life and pro-family reputation.  It also now takes its place as a leader in the area of religious freedom.  Missouri has now reinforced in its own Constitution the First Amemdment right to the free exercise of religion at the highest standard in the most explicit terms possible.  Hopefully other states will follow suit.

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