BULLOCH COUNTY, GA — A group of residents in Bulloch County, Georgia is petitioning their local school board to protect the religious rights of its teachers.
Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties, led by Pastor Jon Cook, recently requested that the county Board of Education review its religious expression guidelines after emails were distributed throughout the county instructing teachers to cleanse their classroom of Christianity.
“As of today, if you have a Bible verse on your school email and/or Bible verse posted in the classroom, please remove it immediately,” a message received by Cook’s wife, Jill, a teacher at Sallie Zetterower Elementary School, read. “If a student-led prayer is initiated, you must remove yourself and step away from the group.”
A complaint received by Americans United for Separation of Church and State reportedly sparked the memo, as the group contacted the district earlier this year to take issue with school prayer, including alleged teacher participation.
Therefore, after Cook’s wife received the email notice, he decided to form a coalition and create a petition asking the board to protect the religious rights of teachers. The petition asserts that the district’s list of prohibited activities “are not in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as long as they are a form of private expression and not an attempt to indoctrinate or instill beliefs in students.”
“We believe that the BOE (Board of Education) must be empathetic to those who have complaints but are not required to give in to demands made by outside organizations who do not understand our community,” it reads. “We, as a community, desire to have a good relationship with our BOE and school system officials and understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to work towards a common good that is fair to all those involved.”
Nearly 250 people attended a board meeting earlier this month to speak out over the matter, and last week, a follow-up information session was held with board attorney Susan Cox. Attorney Jeremy Dys of the Texas-based Liberty Council spoke at this month’s meeting, presenting the board with a letter demanding that it cease violating the religious rights of teachers.
“[I]t is clear that the Board is creating a situation in which teachers are fearful to express their faith while at work or even voice disagreement with the repeated decisions of this Board to favor secular speech over and against religious speech,” it read. “We ask that you put a stop to censoring the email signatures of the teachers and staff of Bulloch County Schools and, within thirty (30) days, issue a statement to each of your teachers and support staff reaffirming their religious liberty.”
Soon after, the board issued a notice in support of the religious freedom of teachers and other district employees.
“We are grateful to see the Board of Education in Bulloch County begin to restore the trust of its teachers and community by affirming their commitment to the religious liberty of its employees and students,” Dys stated in a news release about the matter. “While the Board’s commitment to religious liberty will become more apparent by its consistent, future actions in support of religious liberty, today it is clear that they are listening to the voices of the voters who put them into office.”
However, he said that concerns remain as some restrictions have not yet been overturned.
“[W]e are disappointed that the Board appears poised to unnecessarily close off an email signature line for any First Amendment expression in a country that values open dialog,” Dys remarked. “The Board of Education is not required to shut down all First Amendment expression in the signature lines of district email accounts.”
The Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties petition has obtained over 1,200 signatures to date.