January 2014 Church & State | People & Events

A Georgia public school system is reexamining its policies concerning religion in the wake of a complaint by Americans United.

In April, AU’s Legal Department wrote to education officials in Bulloch County in response to a complaint that coaches and band officials were leading students in prayer.

To resolve that matter, school officials instituted some new policies concerning religious activity by teachers and staff. But apparently some confusion lingered, because in December, the school came under fire for allegedly attempting to ban Christmas.

The Fox News Channel and other far-right media began reporting that officials in Bulloch County were so terrified by Americans United that they immediately removed all religious references from the school, even things that aren’t a problem.

Both Fox News and Glenn Beck’s website “The Blaze” reported that the school had put a stop to an annual tradition of allowing teachers to display personal Christmas cards they had received on a poster in the hallway of Brooklet Elementary School.

In fact, the school’s decision to remove the poster had nothing to do with Americans United. The poster was moved because one of the teachers raised a privacy concern. It was displayed in a faculty work room instead.

Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson called a special meeting Dec. 2 to clarify what schools can and cannot do when it comes to religious expression, the Statesboro Herald reported.

“The Bulloch County Board of Education has not changed or adopted any policies prohibiting the rights of school system employees to practice their constitutional rights of religious expression,” Wilson said in a statement at the meeting. “However, there has been a recent reminder from me to school principals about established legal requirements to which we must adhere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, addresses these rights and restrictions.”

Hundreds of community residents packed the board meeting. Several demanded that the school change its policies and allow more religion in the schools.

Wilson later told local media that erroneous reports about the school’s holiday policies had hurt the system. He told WSAV-TV that a Dec. 3 story by Fox Radio commentator Todd Starnes led to a flood of outraged calls and emails. Wilson noted that no one from Fox News actually called the school to get its side of the story.

“We are trying hard in this community to have a good, healthy dialogue,” said Wilson. He criticized “the intentional spreading of this misinformation” and added, “I see it as destructive.”

Wilson also issued a statement to set the record straight. It reads in part, “Bulloch County Schools nor BES’s administrators have not, nor do they plan to remove any student’s learning experiences about Christmas or any other seasonal holiday. Students returned Monday from Thanksgiving break, and already students’ holiday artwork is going up on bulletin boards, walls and doorways.”

Teacher Becky Petkewich echoed Wilson’s concerns. “I just couldn’t believe that someone would make up some things like that,” she said.