Religious Liberty Policies

BethBurgos

Over the past two years, WCSB member Beth Burgos has pursued several missions – to institute prayer at School Board meetings, to censor textbooks and teacher supplementary materials, to investigate teachers for their free speech outside school hours and off school premises based on a secret recording, and to participate in the statewide campaign alleging that seventh grade social studies students were – or could be – indoctrinated into Islam. Burgos has created a host of “religious liberty” policies including the ultimately dropped and largely plagiarized Williamson County Religious Liberty & Protection Resolution.

In August, Burgos introduced four “religious liberty” policies at the policy committee meeting, but they were tabled until the 10/3 meeting. They will be discussed at the 10/13 work session.

Burgos’ “religious liberty” policies are simply restatements of state law—but they leave out one fundamental part

4.607 – Homework

This is already state law (TCA 49-6-1804) with no specification that it be duplicated in district policy. Burgos added this clause in its entirety to the existing WCS Homework policy.

49-6-1804. Discrimination based on religious content of student’s written or oral assignments or submissions prohibited — Penalty or reward prohibited.

“Students may express their written beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submissions. Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate academic concerns identified by the LEA. Students may not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of the student’s work.”

4.803 – Student Religious Liberties *NEW*

This is existing state law (TCA 49-6-2904) that has been in place since 1997. It allows students to:

Pray at school.

Express and share religious viewpoints.

Possess or distribute religious literature at school.

Be absent to observe religious holidays and participate in religious practices.

Notably, Burgos omitted from her proposed policy a portion of state law:

49-6-2906. Teachers and administrators not to violate the first amendment establishment clause.

“Nothing in this part shall be construed to support, encourage or permit a teacher, administrator or other employee of the public schools to lead, direct or encourage any religious or antireligious activity in violation of that portion of the first amendment of the United States constitution prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

4.8041 – The Study of Religious Holidays

This is existing state law (TCA 49-6-1033). It allows school employees to:

Offer greetings related to religious holidays, such as “Merry Christmas.”

Display scenes or symbols associated with “traditional winter celebrations” if the display includes a symbol of more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular symbol.

Use religious themes as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if they are essential to the learning experience.

5.601 – Employee Religious Liberties *NEW*

This is existing state law (TCA 49-6-8004) that has been in place since 1999. It allows employees to:

Read a religious book during non-instructional time.

Quietly say grace before a meal.

Wear religious garb or jewelry that does not disrupt the school environment.

Meet with other employees for prayer or scriptural study before or after school or during the employee’s lunch period.

Notably, Burgos omitted from her proposed policy a portion of state law:

49-6-8006. Employees should not violate first amendment establishment clause.

“Nothing in this part shall be construed to support, encourage or permit a school employee to lead, direct or encourage any religious or antireligious activity in violation of that portion of the first amendment of the United States constitution prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

As you can see, Burgos’ proposed policies are nothing more than restatements of state law which already apply to the district. Burgos omits the portions of the laws which prohibit school employees from violating the (religious) Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

It is unclear why WCS would need a policy to simply restate state laws, many of which were passed almost 20 years ago.

Burgos called the climate surrounding religion in public schools “highly charged” and said she hopes the policies will clarify the religious liberties of Williamson County students and employees. Burgos has not identified any specific situations in which WCS teachers have expressed concern or experienced a “highly charged” climate about religion.

Burgos said it is about communicating current law:

“The purpose is really just communicating what’s in the (state and federal) law. It’s hard to keep up with the laws, and I hope this helps with clarity purposes.”

Dr. Looney questioned whether these policies would solve a real problem:

“I honestly believe we’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist. We train our employees every year about what the law says. [Religious liberties] is a pretty big topic to cover in our training with our employees. I think our employees are well versed in this.”

Other WCSB action that restated state and federal law

Beth Burgos is focused on religious free speech. Contrast that with her opposition to Rick Wimberly’s “speak up” resolution that states:

“The Williamson County Board of Education encourages an environment where professional educators and staff are comfortable with and encouraged to express opinions, and supports the Superintendent’s efforts to solicit educator and staff input.”

And:

“The Williamson County Board of Education will respect and honor those values found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and will seek no punitive action against any employee for the lawful expression of opinion even when such opinion runs counter to the Board’s or the Administration’s views.”

Wimberly’s “speak up” resolution addressed a genuine problem in WCS. An anonymous employee survey showed that employees of the district (most of whom are teachers) are afraid to state their viewpoint if it would conflict with the position of the board. Only 16% said they felt safe to do so without fear of retribution.

There are two foundational questions

1. Do Burgos’ four “religious liberty” policies address actual problems in WCS?

2. Does the WCSB need to devote time to mirroring every state law?

 

 

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