There is good news and bad news from the state of South Carolina today.
Let’s start with the good news: Members of the Florence School District 1 School Board have agreed to stop sending sectarian email messages to staff after Americans United advised against the practice.
AU acted after receiving complaints about some of the messages being sent by Interim Superintendent Allie Brooks and Roy Ann Jolley, principal of Delmae Elementary School.
These weren’t just passing references. Brooks and Jolley were sending scriptures passages, theological advice and prayers to district employees on a regular basis.
Here’s an example: On March 21, 2011, Jolley sent a long message to school employees. It opened with “Today’s Scripture” – a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Romans – and included an exhortation to “Know that God is working in your life. Keep being faithful. Keep doing the right thing, knowing that in the end God is going to turn things around in your favor. If God is for you, who can be against you?” The message ended with “Today’s Prayer” addressed to “Father in Heaven.”
District officials have also been including prayer in staff meetings. AU has warned them about that as well.
Board members voted last night to stop the messages. It’s clear that some of them aren’t happy about it, but AU’s letter cited case law and made it clear the school officials were in violation of court rulings.
According to the website scnow.com, Brooks said, “It’s simple. We are public officials and we have a responsibility to follow the law and we will follow the law. Those emails were sent to staff for encouragement. We won’t stop encouraging, we’ll just change the wording. Instead of saying, ‘Have a blessed day,’ I guess I’ll have to start saying, ‘Have a good day.’”
Now here’s the bad news: A federal court has rejected a lawsuit challenging the Spartanburg School District’s practice of giving academic credit for Bible classes taken offsite.
These courses are not objective “teach about” the Bible classes that are becoming popular in some public schools. Rather, they are part of a “released-time” program. Students leave school during the day for religious instruction that reflects a certain sectarian perspective – in this case, fundamentalist Christianity.
The Supreme Court upheld this practice in 1952, since the courses are not on school property. But giving students academic credit for taking what is essentially a Sunday School lesson goes too far.
The case was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is considering an appeal.
Rick Hahnenberg, president of the Upstate chapter of Americans United, told the Greenville News, “We certainly feel that the state has gone too far to give academic credit (for religious courses) and feel it’s unconstitutional.”
The Supreme Court handed down its first ruling on school prayer, Engel v. Vitale, on June 25, 1962. We will mark the 50th anniversary of that landmark decision next year. I’m glad public schools are no longer in the business of sponsoring prayer and religious worship. But as these recent South Carolina tussles indicate, the issue of religion in public schools is still very much with us.
That’s why Americans United stays on the case.