School District Responds to ACLU Inquiry

In response to a Aug. 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina, the Fairfield County School District has supplied the civil liberties organization with several of its policies related to prayer and religious displays within the school district and at district events. A complete response to the ACLU’s detailed request, however, would cost the ACLU more than $2,000, according to the school district’s reply letter dated Sept. 13.

In addition to policies, the ACLU’s request seeks records of all programs, schedules, itineraries, calendars, agendas, minutes or news publications referring to, relating to or reflecting the inclusion of prayer, invocations, benedictions, blessings, proselytizing or other religious remarks or exercises in any school-sponsored event, including (but not limited to) graduation exercises, athletic events, school board meetings, ceremonies and banquets, baccalaureate services, school event calendars, daily announcements and school newsletters. According to the district’s reply, compiling these documents would cost the district 120 hours, and at an hourly rate of $19.73 an hour, the cost to the ACLU would be $2,367.60, half of which would have to be paid up front before the district began work pulling the records together.

The ACLU’s request is not limited to the Fairfield County School District, but is part of the statewide “Religious Freedom Goes to School” campaign, launched just eight months after the ACLU prevailed in a legal battle with the Chesterfield County School District.

In Chesterfield, a middle school student was the victim of religious coercion. Teachers were praying over him and he was being sent to detention for not attending evangelical pep rallies, said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.

In December 2011, that student’s parent sued the Chesterfield County School District, and in January of this year, U.S. District Court judge R. Bryan Harwell ruled in favor of the parent. As a result, Chesterfield was issued a permanent injunction against prayer at school events, and school officials were enjoined from promoting their religious beliefs to students. The Chesterfield School District was also stuck with the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Since then, Middleton said, the ACLU has received several complaints of similar activities in schools across the state.

“(This program) is an effort to get an idea of what the policies are at the districts,” Middleton said, “if they do have policies, and the way they can comply with the First Amendment in regard to freedom of religion.”

While the Fairfield County School District’s reply to the ACLU primarily directed the ACLU to the district’s web site for details on policies, the district did include a copy of three policies in the response.

Policy IHAL, “Teaching about Religion,” states that “Neither the district nor its employees will promote or disparage any religious belief or non-belief. Instead, the district will encourage all students and staff members to appreciate and tolerate each other’s religious views.”

“The district supports the inclusion of religious literature, music, drama and the arts in the curriculum and in school activities, provided it is intrinsic to the learning experience in the various fields of study and is presented objectively,” the policy, which was adopted in August of 1990 and revised in April of 1997, states.

Policy IMDC, “Religious Observances and Displays,” states that the religious and secular holidays that occur during the school year may be observed in district schools and that the “historical and contemporary values and the origin of religious holidays may be explained in an unbiased and objective manner without sectarian indoctrination.” The district will permit the use of religious symbols related to these holidays, the policy states, as a teaching aid, “provided such symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage and are temporary in nature.”

As for school ceremonies, Policy IMD only allows for the pledge of allegiance, and notes that students with religious objections may be excused from saluting the flag or reciting the pledge.

The Fairfield County School Board, which has traditionally opened their meetings with the pledge followed by a prayer, opened their Sept. 18 meeting with the pledge and a moment of silence instead.

Meanwhile, two weeks after the district received the ACLU’s FOIA request, they also received a letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). According to the ADF, the ACLU’s campaign contains “inaccurate and incomplete” information. Furthermore, the ADF said, the ruling in the Chesterfield case does not apply to any other school district. The ADF offered its assistance to the school district regarding the ACLU’s campaign.

The ADF is a conservative Christian non-profit organization founded in 1994 as the Alliance Defense Fund by Bill Bright (founder, Campus Crusade for Christ), Larry Burkett (founder, Crown Financial Ministries), James Dobson (founder, Focus on the Family), D. James Kennedy (founder, Coral Ridge Ministries), Marlin Maddoux (president, International Christian Media) and Donald Wildmon (founder, American Family Association).