Posted: Tuesday, August 19th 2014 at 1:23pm
Schofield reminds system employees of religious rights, limitations
By B.J. Williams Administrator
GAINESVILLE - Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield said Tuesday he does not plan to issue a public response to a letter written last week by an atheist group complaining about prayers involving Chestatee High School's football team.
"I don't spend much time reacting quickly to letters from people who live a thousand miles away," said Schofield about a letter from the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C.
Instead, Schofield issued an email memo Tuesday morning to all school system employees, reminding them of their religious rights - and their limitations, as well. (See full content of the email at the end of this story.)
"Our School Board and I just felt like it was time to remind them that there's no change, that it's the same guiding principles that we've always operated under in this area," said Schofield.
After the letter was made public Tuesday, August 12, Schofield said teachers and parents began to ask questions of him and school board members about what their constitutional rights are when it comes to religious expression at school.
He said students have an almost unlimited right to express their views.
"They can pray, they can choose not to pray, they can try to talk their classmates into believing what they believe - as long as they are respectful of the individuals around them and don't disrupt the school," said Schofield.
The bigger question, perhaps, was sparked by the letter from the AHA: how much is a teacher limited when it comes to religious expression? The AHA accused a Chestatee football coach of leading prayer with the football team.
In his memo, Schofield noted that "they [teachers, administrators, school employees] must not be leading students in prayer during school or school-sponsored activities, nor may they require or pressure students to participate in religious activities."
So what is a teacher to do if a student asks for a teacher to pray?
"I think those are individual circumstances," said Schofield. "Teachers need to rely on their consciences and they need to rely on their relationship with students. But, let me be clear, one of the most important jobs of a teacher is to develop relationships and support students, and again, that is a very individual case-by-case [situation]."
And if a teacher oversteps his or her limits, Schofield said that will be addressed.
"Do well-intended people sometimes cross the line? Of course they do. We don't fire them, we don't have a public hanging. We put an arm around them and say 'You know, that might have gone a little too far. Let's talk about that, let's look at it, let's move on from here.'"
Monica Miller, a representative of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center,
American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C., declined comment on Schofield's comments and message at this time.
"I will wait until we receive a formal response from the school before commenting," Miller said.
(AccessNorthGa.com's Brian Stewart and Ken Stanford contributed to this story.)
The following is the full content of the email distributed to Hall County School System employees by Superintendent Will Schofield:
We have received some recent questions from our community and employees regarding recurring Constitutional issues. It is impossible to devise a "manual" to cover every particular situation. Additionally, case law is often mixed and does not provide definitive answers. However, there are a few issues that are clear and that the Hall County School Board and I have always relied upon as guiding principles:
*The Hall County School District wholeheartedly defends the almost unlimited rights of students to exercise their religious beliefs. As long as activities do not infringe upon or disrespect the religious beliefs of others, or disrupt classroom instruction or school routines, students have the right to pray, read religious materials, talk to their classmates about their beliefs, and following district protocol, form clubs or associations with students who share similar interests. Voluntary, student-led prayers fall within these criteria.
*Hall County Schools will continue to be a place that celebrates our nation’s founding principle of respecting differing viewpoints. Once again, as long as the expression of individual beliefs is not disruptive or harmful to others, we will cultivate and strive to model a culture of respect.
*By law, and under current legal interpretation by the courts, public school employees on the job do not enjoy the same level of religious freedom at school as do our students, yet their religious rights do not evaporate at the schoolhouse gate. Teachers, coaches, administrators, and other school employees may live out their faith in a variety of ways; however, they must not be leading students in prayer during school or school-sponsored activities, nor may they require or pressure students to participate in religious activities.
Our district routinely examines church/state issues. My leadership team relies on open communication and a healthy respect for differing views as we continually review current practices. I have great faith in the judgment of our local leaders to provide guidance and make changes when necessary. As always, I encourage our team and community members to bring any issues or concerns you have to your local principal or supervisor and we will do our best to provide guidance.
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