Christian crosses covered the grass at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, S.C., to commemorate 9/11.
Several flagrant legal violations at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, S.C., were documented in FFRF’s Sept. 19 letter of complaint to Superintendent John Williams of the Chesterfield County School District. FFRF had received reports from multiple local complainants about religious activities at the school, and the district has agreed some were illegal and will monitor them in the future.
The violations included a Sept. 1 school assembly featuring Christian Chapman, a preacher and evangelist, and Christian rap artist B-SHOC (real name Bryan Edmonds), who says on his YouTube channel that “324 students got saved” at the assembly.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the assembly was promoted and described as a “worship rally” on the public school’s website. The video also showed:
• Volunteers being trained by Pastor David Sanders. He tells them, “When it’s time for them to go to their next class, they gotta go, so you need to make sure you’re very brief, what decision did you make? Have prayer with them.”
• Christian Chapman telling the students, “A relationship with Jesus is what you need more importantly than anything else.”
• Chapman telling teachers in the room, “You teach evolution five days a week, nine months out of the year. And let me have 30 minutes to tell them that Jesus loves them. . . . I will win.”
• Students lining up and volunteers praying with them and taking further information from the students and “[made] sure [they] were plugged into a church.”
Evidently, Principal Larry Stinson was aware of the questionable legality of holding a “worship rally” like this one during the school day, but he chose to schedule it anyway. He allegedly told Chapman that “I want these kids to know eternal life is real and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re gonna hear it today.” (at 3:58 in the B-SHOC video).
“Our complainants inform us that various pamphlets, cards and other written materials were handed out to the students,” Markert noted. “In particular, fake money with proselytizing language was distributed by the assembly organizers to the students.” A “million-dollar bill” asks, “THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: WILL YOU GO TO HEAVEN WHEN YOU DIE? HERE’S A QUICK TEST. HAVE YOU EVER TOLD A LIE, STOLEN ANYTHING, OR USED GOD’S NAME IN VAIN?”
The school’s website also said “Connect with Christian Chapman and B-SHOC” and links to their religious sites.
“It is deeply troubling that Chesterfield County School District would allow this ‘assembly’ to take place. It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” Markert wrote. “The overtly religious and proselytizing nature of the program was explicit and known to the school’s administration before the program was scheduled. In fact, precisely because it was an evangelizing event, Principal Stinson scheduled it so that his students would ‘know eternal life’ and devote and recommit their lives to Christ.”
9/11 memorial crosses
FFRF’s letter also noted the Christian crosses erected on the school lawn for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The photo was taken by a complainant Sept. 14.
“Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools,” Markert wrote, citing specific legal precedent. “No court of final resort has ever upheld the government’s display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable. No secular purpose, including memorializing a national tragedy, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and the overall display promotes Christianity.”
While it’s laudable and appropriate for school officials and students to remember the victims of 9/11, it is wholly inappropriate for them to do so by erecting Christian religious symbols, Markert wrote, noting that the nearly 3,000 victims included “an international community of persons of diverse beliefs and nonbeliefs, or whose views on religion will never be known.”
See You at the Pole event
A See You at the Pole prayer event on school grounds Sept. 28 should not have been promoted on the school’s website, FFRF asserted in the letter. (Apparently, the school removed it as a calendar event after receiving an email from Markert.) The announcement said, “Join us for See You At The Pole on Wednesday, September 28, at 7:30 am. We will meet at the rear entrance of the building. Everyone welcome!”
There was no indication of the actual sponsor of SYATP on the posting on the school’s website. New Heights Middle School also created an “event” on the school’s Facebook page for the prayer rally.
Periodic SYATP events are ostensibly “student-initiated” and “student-run,” but from all appearances, it appeared the Sept. 28 event was a school-sponsored event.
“We understand that public schools cannot exclude student religious groups from meeting on school property before or after-school hours,” Markert noted. “Nevertheless, it is inappropriate for teachers, other public school employees or outside adults to actively organize, participate in or promote these student-run religious organizations.”
FFRF asked the district to start an immediate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the decision to allow the Sept. 1 prayer rally. “The alleged statements by Principal Stinson call into question his ability to head a secular public school. He is abusing his public office to promote his private religious agenda. Moreover, schools in your district must be instructed that such rallies cannot be scheduled in the future, and any current plans to have Christian Chapman, B-SHOC or any other Christian group intending to missionize a captive group of young students through these ‘assemblies’ must be canceled immediately.”
The Cheraw Chronicle reported on Oct. 12 that Superintendent Williams will not discuss Principal Stinson’s role, but quoted Williams saying, “I have a personal concern with B-SHOC. He put images of children on the Internet without permission,” which is strictly against board policy, Williams said. “I know had my own child been thrown out there to the world, I would have been some kind of upset.”
Also on Oct. 12, David Duff, school district attorney, responded to FFRF. Regarding the 9/11 crosses display, Duff wrote, “all administrators will be instructed regarding display of religious messages or iconography in the public schools, emphasizing the point that the Latin cross is a principal symbol of Christianity around the world, and further that display of crosses on public property is considered an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and a particular religious faith.”
The board and administrators take what happened at the B-SHOC assembly “very seriously. We have counseled with Mr. Stinson about such matters,” Duff wrote. The district is committed to “following the dictates of the First Amendment in regard to all matters pertaining to religion in the schools. We will endeavor proactively to educate the school community about such matters and to monitor and appropriately control all related events and activities.”
However, Duff noted, the district is allowing B-SHOC to put on programs at two high schools Oct. 28-29 during noninstructional time. Several churches are sponsoring the events, which Duff alleged are permitted under board policy and for which applications have been made.
FFRF has submitted open records requests for policies and lease agreements.