The staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national organization dedicated to preserving the Constitutional separation of church and state, has sent a second formal letter to Macon County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Dan Brigman, requesting that he “refrain from including religious references in email correspondence from your official public school account or on future blog postings.”
The letter from the nonprofit organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), is the second response Dr. Brigman has received this school year, the first letter being a direct response to the sermon delivered last June by Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart during a commencement address given at Nantahala School.
FFRF attorney Rebecca Markert recently sent Dr. Brigman a letter regarding the organization’s objection to an email Brigman sent to all Macon County employees on December 21, 2011, as well as a post on the Superintendent’s blog on the District’s website, which can be viewed by the general public.
The superintendent’s email, which started the controversy, was sent to all employees prior to the district’s winter break. Markert’s email to Brigman focused on the closing line of the email which read, “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope. From my family to you and yours, MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
Markert’s letter to Brigman stated that, “It is obvious these references concern the birth of Jesus Christ, the ‘savior,’” which she believes to be a violation between the separation of church and state. She continued her letter by stating that both Brigman’s email and blog contained inappropriate, religious references. “It is grossly inappropriate for you, as Superintendent of Macon County Schools, to include religious references in any official public school email or blog posting, especially when those communications reach students,” reads the letter. “You, as a public school employee, have a duty to remain neutral towards religion.”
Markert’s letter went on to cite several court cases which support the FFRF’s objection to Brigman’s actions. “In fact, the school district must make certain that “subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion.” Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 619 (1971). Certainly, “a school can direct a teacher to ‘refrain from expressions of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings.’” Helland v. South Bend Comm. Sch. Corp., 93 F.3d 327 (7th Cir. 1993)(quoting Bishop v. Arnov, 926 F.2d 1066, 1077 (11th Cir. 1991),” she continued. “A public school e-mail account, which is used to communicate official business of the school to teachers, faculty, staff and students cannot be used as a means of imposing your own personal religious beliefs.”
In Markert’s first letter on behalf of the FFRF sent to Dr. Brigman dated June 29, 2011, she wrote, “I am writing on behalf of a North Carolina resident to alert you to a serious state/church violation, which occurred at the Nantahala High School graduation ceremony.”
Though the school is small and isolated, Rev. Stewart’s commencement address caused quite a stir, with a number of reports and op/eds appearing in regional publications, as well as on numerous blogs around the country.
Although the nine graduating seniors at Nantahala chose Stewart, a pastor at a Baptist Church in Robbinsville, to deliver their commencement address, Markert stated religious ceremonies during school-sponsored events, whether or not they are student-initiated, are illegal.
“Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction, or sermon at a public high school graduation,” said Markert.
Stewart’s unusual commencement address, first reported by the Andrews Journal, included a benediction and what Markert calls “a colorful, over-the-top sermon” in which, with the help of a student volunteer, the reverend illustrated the pull of the devil on young people after they graduate.
Describing the devil as a “roaring lion,” Stewart used colorful ropes of various sizes to illustrate the danger, wrapping his volunteer until he was nearly unable to move. He then covered the volunteer’s head with a sack.
“The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up,” Stewart was quoted as saying. “These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up.”
According to Markert, Stewart “obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience.” Markert noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down prayers at school numerous times, including in the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, which declared clergy delivered prayers at public school graduations unconstitutional.
Dr. Brigman responded to Markert’s first letter and stated, “First and foremost, let me assure you that Macon County Schools takes the protection of its students, parents and employees very seriously. Without question, this protection extends to the legal rights of each of these vital parts of our school community.”
According to Brigman’s response, the school district would not ever intentionally schedule activities or invite someone to speak at a school event with the purpose of delivering a religious sermon. He also stated that graduation speakers are selected by the graduating seniors, which was the case with Rev. Stewart.
He continued by informing Markert that Macon County Schools “is committed to protecting the rights of its students, parents and employees,” and informed her of the process employed by the school when selecting a speaker. According to his letter, after a speaker is selected by the students, the school’s principal is to review the selection to determine if it is appropriate.
At the time of Nantahala’s graduation, the former principal, Robbie Newton, had passed away due to cancer, which according to Brigman, “tragic circumstances prevented a proper vetting through this process.”
Being the second letter the FFRF has sent Dr. Brigman, the organization asked, “We further request that you immediately respond in writing about the steps you are taking to remedy this violation of the Establishment Clause so that we may notify our complainant,” concludes Markert’s letter.
Having just recently received the second letter, Dr. Brigman and John Henning Jr., Macon County Schools attorney, stated that they needed to further review the letter before commenting on the issue.