The Uniontown, Ohio, school district's professed value of "belief in God" appears to be going the way of "23 skidoo" after action Dec. 14 by the Lake Local Board of Education.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation initially complained last August on behalf of its members about the Godly inclusion in district publications. For example, the cover of the district's August 2009 Blue Streak News said:
"WE VALUE: Responsibility, honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, belief in God and religious freedom, our community, our partnerships, and every person as a unique individual with the ability to acquire and apply knowledge."
An earlier district mailer, sent to all postal customers, had the same language. The Ohio complainant also told the Foundation that Lake Local had the same words on the home page of the district's Web site but had removed it.
The School Board unanimously approved a revised "mission statement" Dec. 14. The statement says: "Mission: Providing education to achieve success. Vision: To be the best organization for learning. We Value: Responsibility, honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, belief in religious freedom, our community, our partnerships, and every person as a unique individual with the ability to acquire and apply knowledge."
The approval is temporary, according to a document provided by Mary Jo Shannon Slick, the board's general counsel. The board will vote at its next meeting on Jan. 11 whether to make the change permanent, said a Canton Repository news report, which said the action was "in response to the possibility of a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation."
As Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, pointed out in the Foundation's August letter, "Listing 'belief in God' as an important value violates the First Amendment because it imposes religious sentiments upon students and their parents within the school district."
According to the Repository report, "legal precedent clearly was against the mission statement in its unchanged form. Board members approved the change despite their personal misgivings and the support of five residents who, during the meeting, said they wanted to fight the change. Board members and the superintendent said their legal advisers told them there is no way the district could win a lawsuit allowing the reference to God in the mission statement."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, called the violation "one of the most egregious we have encountered in the more than 30 years that the Foundation has been operating."
The Foundation received requests for help not only from several area taxpayers but from two families with young children in the schools, Gaylor said.
"They were willing, despite the conservative area, to sue if the godly endorsement was not removed. The Foundation held back from its lawsuit only because a district official phoned to say the issue would be addressed in December," she said.
"We and these families have been very patient, but we have not received to date a written reply from the district beyond a copy of the proposed revision, which we had to specifically request after reading a newspaper story about the board meeting. And to date, the district has not admitted wrongdoing. There's no question the Foundation would have won a legal challenge over this, given the well-settled law keeping religion out of public schools."
Gaylor said it's ironic that media reports are spinning the issue as a big national group bullying a small local community. "The bully is the school district, which has no right to promote belief in a god to a captive audience of schoolchildren. Under our secular and godless Constitution, our government and its schools can have no religion, no position on whether there is a god, much less tell children and their parents that it values such a belief."
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker added, "God is not something everyone believes in, and for a public school district to say to its patrons that 'We Value Belief in God' is beyond the pale. It's pandering to believers and unbelievably insulting to nonbelievers. Yes, we have freedom of religion, but we also have freedom from religion. People have to wake up to the fact that it's not 1950 anymore."