Washington County School District accused of constitutional violations

Published: Aug. 23, 2017 at 5:45 PM CDT
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The Washington County School District responded Tuesday to allegations of unconstitutional religious practices taking place in the district - specifically at Vernon High School.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Washington County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Taylor on August 10th, citing "serious constitutional violations" in the district.

"I'm thinking, 'These are legal matters,'" Taylor said. "I'm not an attorney. I referred it to our risk management team for them to take a look at it. There's some pretty big-picture questions here."

The letter includes several complaints, including a teacher promoting the sale of religious t-shirts, teachers requiring students to transcribe Bible chapters from the Book of John, and displaying a banner with a Bible verse on the football field.

"What the letter was describing was actual boards that churches pay for to put their name on," Taylor said. "Is that an endorsement of religion? Can you even be permitted to do those? Like I said, those are issues that we're not really locally equipped to make a call on."

The original complaints came from a Vernon resident, who said in a statement, "I did not complain about these incidents at Vernon because I hate religion or God. Quite the opposite. In this country, we have the freedom to practice any faith we choose, or none at all. The problem with religion in schools is that you run the risk of a Catholic teacher confusing Baptist students, or a Lutheran teacher confusing Mormon students, or a Buddhist teacher confusing Muslim students. Religion should be taught in church and in the home, not in the school. I am disturbed that Vernon has received similar complaints in the past, yet has continued to flagrantly ignore the law regarding which religious practices are and are not allowed in schools. I hope this serves as a wake up call for them."

The letter also addresses coach-led and graduation prayers.

"If that person should deliver a prayer, we don't censor it in any way and we don't review it," Taylor said. "That's something we are required to not do."

Taylor said the district will provide updates as attorneys review the case.

"The main thing was student-led prayer. Those won't be handled until spring, so there is some timing," Taylor said. "The issues related to the banner within the stadium... that probably needs some immediate clarification."

A PDF copy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation letter is attached.

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