In an Oct. 6 Apalachicola Times article “Teacher workshop on religion draws concern,” the paper reports that in a recent meeting, School Board Chair Pamela Shiver raised serious concerns about violation of the civil rights of several students by the Franklin County School District. “There are five cases (of religious discrimination) I’m familiar with in the last four or five years,” she said.
As an attorney, I have been involved in representing hundreds of clients who have experienced illegal discrimination in reference to First Amendment rights in public settings. I have significant and specific experience in reference to civil rights issues in the public school environment. Students, teachers and administrators have the right to First Amendment protections in the school environment.
Constitutional law does restrict religious expression by students in public school settings, but the law does not prevent such expression. If a school district violates a student’s First Amendment rights, the district has acted illegally and may be brought to account in a court of law. Likewise, employees in a school district have the right to religious expression.
The law does limit religious expression where an employee is a “state agent,” but in settings where the teacher or administrator is not acting as a representative of the district (the “state” in legal terms), an employee has the constitutional right to exercise their religion. For instance, where a teacher wishes to hold a Bible study during their free time (such as on a lunch break), they generally have the right to do so, even where the Bible study is held on school property. A teacher’s lounge is likely an appropriate location for such a Bible study. No one is violating anyone’s rights in that setting.
In the same manner that teachers, administrators and staff may discuss the latest exploit of their favorite college football team, they may discuss religion. They may discuss politics or union matters. Likewise, they may talk about Jesus, read the Bible and even give a co-worker a gospel tract. All of these activities are constitutionally protected speech. Unless an employer wants to limit all speech, the employer must allow religious speech. No one is going to say, “You cannot talk about the Miami Dolphins during your lunch break. That offends me, because I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.” Similarly, it is illegal to restrict speech of a school employee when they are on their free time. The only thing they may not do is attempt to persuade students about religious matters where the teacher is acting as an agent of the state.
Student religious activity is also protected. To illustrate, sometimes a student is told by a teacher, “You cannot read your Bible on your free time! That is illegal!” A school administrator may tell a student leader, “Your pastor may not come and speak to your school group even though the group has invited him (or her) to come and speak about Christ. Church people cannot speak on school property; it is against the law.” A coach may tell a cheerleader, “You cannot pray on the sideline before a football game; the law does not allow you to do that!”
In each of these cases, a student’s God-given, First Amendment rights have very likely been violated by an illegal act by a school district employee. It is illegal for a government official (i.e.: school district administrator, teacher or staff member) to violate the First Amendment rights of a student or an employee of the district. Illegal restrictions on protected speech may result in awards of money damages to the student or employee.
This highlights the need for proper legal training for Franklin County School District employees. What school board members may not understand is that the absence of training in reference to student and employee civil rights can lead to significant exposure, potential money judgments in civil suits. The motivation of the Prayer Awakening group in encouraging this training is in large part to help our school system avoid potential financial liability.
With most attorneys, the starting point of civil rights issues is never a “hunt for money.” Generally, such issues are, and should be, resolved with direct communication with a district’s legal counsel. After interaction between attorneys, the matter is most often resolved very amicably. However, the Franklin County School District, according to Shiver’s statements, may have violated student civil rights five times over the last four or five years. Given that track record, it is likely only a matter of time before an attorney and their client(s) decide that the only way to get the district’s attention is to sue. As an attorney, if the district takes the position that civil rights education of employees is not worth in-service time, I would likely agree that money damages is the only way to make the district understand that the First Amendment is an important issue.
Homer Inman McMillan II, is a attorney-at-law in Carrabelle.