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FFRF educates Okla. school district on state/church separation (March 6, 2013)

An Oklahoma school district superintendent instructed teachers not to promote religion in classrooms, after correspondence with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned family in the Wynnewood Public Schools District contacted FFRF with concerns about a 6th grade teacher displaying posters with bible quotes and promoting Christianity to students at Wynne Middle School. The social studies teacher attacked evolution and misinformed students that the U.S. Constitution, an entirely secular and godless document, derives directly from the bible. A parent had complained to the principal, who is married to the offending teacher. The principal removed the posters but insisted it was the teacher's "First Amendment right" to talk about her personal religious views with her students.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted district superintendent Randy Cole in a Feb. 28 letter, which cited numerous Supreme Court cases showing that public schools cannot advance or promote religion. He cited case law that puts an affirmative duty on schools to make certain "subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion." He added that "the First Amendment is not a license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curricular content" and that courts have upheld the termination of teachers who violate the Establishment Clause.

On March 4, Seidel received an official email from Cole, who conceded the teacher should not have placed posters with bible verses in her classroom and instructed her to "stay strictly with the information presented in the book." But he volunteered that student-led prayer is constitutional. Although he has "a degree in science," he argued against evolution. Cole not only asked Seidel whether he is a believer, but sermonized: "What happens when you die, if you're wrong? If I'm wrong, when I die I just die, but if you're wrong, when you die. . . ." He also said "the further we separate God from our schools the nearer we bring violence and evil."

Seidel responded, "Evolution is as much a fact as gravity," and called it "disturbing" that a superintendent does not "believe in" evolution. He recommended Cole read books by Dawkins and Coyne.

Seidel then addressed Cole's condescending question: "I don't really know what you believe in I only know what you don't believe in. Out of curiosity, I would like to ask you what you believe."

"Please understand that my personal beliefs have no bearing on the illegality of the Carters' actions. But since you asked, I believe in the First Amendment. I believe in protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. I believe that religion is the single most divisive force on this planet and that it has no place in our public schools. I believe that ideas should be subjected to reason, debate, and inquiry, not blindly accepted." Seidel also added, "I believe in love, in family, and in making the most of this life because it's the only one we have. In short, I am an atheist."

After calling Cole's assertion that secularism causes school shootings "appalling," Seidel noted:

"Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread. And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.'"

He also cited Supreme Court precedent against student-led prayer in public schools.

In a March 6 email, Cole instructed the District's principals to hold meetings with the schools' principals by the end of the week and not to promote religion in the classroom. Cole also replied o Seidel, "You raise some good and interesting points, as I said it would be foolish of me to argue with a lawyer."

According to Seidel, Cole got one more thing wrong: "It's not foolish to argue with a lawyer, it's foolish to argue with an atheist."