The Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded a Texas school district to educate its employees about the constitutional pitfalls of promoting sectarian religious events.
A concerned local resident contacted the national state/church watchdog to report that Pine Tree Birch Elementary School in Longview, Texas, used its official government Facebook page to publicize a See You at the Pole event. This posting described the event as a “national day of student prayer” and indicated that the event is “hosted by Pine Tree Birch Elementary School.”
See You at the Pole, like other allegedly student-run events, may not constitutionally be promoted or endorsed by a government entity like the school district or its employees, FFRF reminded the Pine Tree Independent School District.
“It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Steve Clugston. “Yet advancing, preferring and promoting religion is exactly what a school district does when its employees post religious messages on official public social media pages. These proselytizing messages give the appearance of district endorsement of religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths.”
Federal courts around the country have prohibited religious messages or conduct by school employees. These restrictions clearly extend beyond the brick and mortar. They are just as applicable to the district’s webpage and any social media pages, including those utilized by school employees, which a reasonable viewer would assume represents the views of the school district these employees represent, FFRF stressed.
When district staff plan, promote or participate in See You At The Pole events, they not only violate the First Amendment, but they also alienate students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school. These practices exclude the 35 percent of Americans who are not Christian, which includes the 26 percent who are not religiously affiliated. Any religious events must be entirely student-initiated, student-promoted and student-run, FFRF emphasized, and district staff must not plan, promote or participate in any future “See You at the Pole” events.
The Pine Tree Independent School District has taken seriously FFRF’s constitutional tutorial.
“We recognize the need for training and education for our staff concerning this area,” Assistant Superintendent Valerie Baxter has responded. “A training is being developed for all staff who have access to control the content of the school’s official media outlets.”
FFRF is always happy to play an educational role.
“School employees can’t promote religion using official resources,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re glad that we were able to tutor the school district, and that it understands why school promotion of religion is divisive and inappropriate.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,400 members and a chapter in Texas. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.