Nov 12, 2003

A public school official in North Carolina violated the First Amendment when he encouraged his staff to attend a fundamentalist Christian presentation on homosexuality, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has said.

In a letter sent Nov. 10 to Don Martin, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Americans United said the principle of church-state separation was compromised when Martin encouraged administrators and principals in the district to attend a presentation that said conversion to Christianity can turn gays into heterosexuals.

"By promoting this event, you effectively sent the message that you and the School District on whose behalf you write are endorsing a religious perspective on a social issue and are encouraging other District employees to do the same," Ayesha Khan, AU's legal director, wrote. "While you are certainly entitled to hold your personal religious views (and to speak about them in your personal capacity, to members of your church, for example), the Constitution prohibits your use of your public position to advance them."

Martin had sent an e-mail earlier this year to administrators and principals promoting an event by an organization called Living in Freedom Eternally (L.I.F.E.) Ministry. Joanna Highley, one of the group's founders, was to speak at a local Presbyterian church about how Christianity can convert gays into heterosexuals. In his e-mail, Martin said Highley had "worked with a number of practicing homosexuals about returning to a heterosexual lifestyle" and that he would like "to encourage you to come hear about her program...."

At the presentation, Highley said her group believes "that homosexuality is a Satanic counterfeit to God's created design," according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

"Government officials have no right to promote a religious agenda," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "The public school superintendent clearly took advantage of his position when he encouraged his subordinates to attend the event."

AU's letter urged Martin to "refrain in the future from advocating staff attendance at religious events" and asked him to respond to AU's complaint within 30 days.

"We want to make sure this sort of thing does not happen again," Lynn said.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.