Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Freedom From Religion Foundation Closes Complaint Against Oconee County Schools After School Attorney Says Display Corrected

***OCS Response To Aug. 23 Complaint Dated Jan. 4***

The Freedom From Religion Foundation on Wednesday closed the file of a complaint against Oconee County Schools in August of last year for a religious display at Oconee County Middle School.

Phillip L. Hartley, attorney for Oconee County Schools, informed the Foundation on Tuesday that the display in question was part of a larger display by student groups.

Hartley said Oconee County Schools had not identified the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as the student group sponsoring the display “and that has now been corrected.”

Attorneys for the national Foundation based in Madison, Wisc., had written to Oconee County School Superintendent Jason Branch twice last year asking him to reply to a complaint to the Foundation by an unidentified “concerned parent.”

The Foundation letter labeled the display a “religious endorsement” that was a “constitutional violation.”

Hartley, in his letter to the Foundation dated Jan. 4, said Oconee County Schools “appreciates” the Foundation bringing the display to its attention and that displays in the future will label the sponsoring student organization.

In a completely unrelated issue on Wednesday, Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez apologized for an “unfortunate choice of language” in email she sent out following an “alleged assault” at an Oconee County Democratic Party social event in December.

The apology was included in a joint statement by Gonzalez, Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell, and Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton promising quarterly joint meetings to discuss “individual concerns going forward.”

Foundation Decision

Stephanie Dyer, legal assistant at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said on Wednesday that the Foundation received a letter from Hartley on Tuesday. Included with that letter was a picture of a hallway including a number of student displays.

Photo From Hartley To Freedom From Religion Foundation

“In context, the display is one of many student club displays,” Dyer wrote. “The District admit it erred in not indicating that this was an FCA display, however that has since been corrected.” FCA stands for Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“Given the context of the display and its creation by a student club,” Dyer said, “we are going to close the file for this particular complaint for now.”

The Foundation had written to Branch on Aug. 23, 2021, in response to a complaint filed with the foundation by a “concerned parent” about a display at Oconee County Middle School.

“The District violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols or messages,” Staff Attorney Christopher Line told Branch. “Public schools may not advance, prefer, or promote religion.”

“This display violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the District prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths,” Line’s letter stated.

“Please reply in writing with the steps you are taking to remedy this constitutional violation,” the letter said.

The Foundation never received a response to that letter or to a follow-up email and letter sent on Oct. 28.

OCS Response

In his letter dated Jan. 4, Hartley, referenced the initial letter from the Foundation to Branch in August but did not comment on his delay in responding.

“You sent a picture of a bulletin board that was posted at the time together with multiple other boards that are used by various student clubs and groups at the middle school,” Hartley wrote.

“Student groups use the boards in a nonstructured rotation as requested,” he continued.

“I have included a picture showing the same board but in the context of the entire hall,” Hartley’s letter continues.

“It was noticed that this particular bulletin board did not identify the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as the student group sponsoring the board and that has now been corrected,” Hartley wrote.

“The District appreciates your bringing this matter to its attention so it can clarify the school’s practice and make sure that each board indicates the sponsoring student organization,” Hartley said.

Dyer said the Foundation received the letter from Hartley on Jan. 4, via email.

Joint Statement

Oconee County released the joint statement by Gonzalez, Daniell, and Horton at 2:11 p.m. on Wednesday and posted it on the county web site.

Gonzalez posted it to her District Attorney Facebook page a few hours earlier.

“In recent weeks, unfortunate written comments regarding Oconee County by District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez became widely publicized,” the statement reads.

“In an effort to reduce tensions and ensure that the important work of the justice system continues in an effective manner, Commissioner Chuck Horton, Chairman John Daniell, and DA Deborah Gonzalez recently met to discuss the situation,” it continues.

“All participants agree that we had a very frank and healthy conversation regarding both our individual concerns and our common interests,” the statement reads.

“We discussed recent statements made by the District Attorney regarding what she considered to be extreme and threatening language directed at her on social media, as well as a recent alleged assault by a white male resident of Clarke County on a white male attendee at an Oconee County Democratic Party event,” the statement reads.

“District Attorney Gonzalez deeply regrets the unfortunate choice of language used in a recent email she sent regarding these matters,” the statement continues.

“While DA Gonzalez only intended to single out the actions of a few, she understands why Oconee County was offended by these comments,” according to the statement. “It was not her intent to cause such offense, and DA Gonzalez apologizes.”

Additional Details

I did not receive the email from Gonzalez in question, but Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, reported in the Dec. 30 edition of the paper that Gonzalez said she could not walk alone in Watkinsville and Oconee County “because white supremacists are out to get me.”

The statement followed an incident on Dec. 16 in which Dan Matthews, former Watkinsville City Council Member, was injured in an altercation at Fully Loaded Pizza. Matthews was at a social gathering of the Oconee County Democratic Party. (An earlier version did not indicate that Matthews was at the social event. I apologize for the error.)

On a Dec. 18 posting on her personal Facebook page, Gonzalez said “two of my friends insisted in walking me to my car to make sure I was safe” after the party and “made me promise not to go to Oconee alone.”

Gonzalez said the friends were concerned about Facebook groups that “have been popping up and the vitriol ensuing forth from them–specifically against me–with hate and potential threats to my life.”

Addendum: On the morning of Jan. 6 I received a copy of the Dec. 18 email that Prochaska quoted and that is referenced in the statement from Gonzalez, Daniell, and Horton.

"I can't walk alone in Watkinsville, Oconee, because white supremacists are out to get me," the email states and as Prochaska wrote. "I am in fact the most hated woman in Oconee because of the work I am doing," it continued.

"Two friends walked me to my car last night - literally would not let me go alone for they feared for my safety - after a friend of ours was physically assaulted in an act of political aggression ad made me promise if I am ever in Oconee to not be alone," the newsletter stated.

Other Issues In Joint Statement

In the joint statement, the Gonzalez, Daniell, and Horton acknowledged that they also “discussed whether splitting the Western Judicial Circuit was in the best interests of the residents of Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties.

“While no consensus exists, we agree the decision to make a change in the circuit should not be based on the election of an individual District Attorney,” they said.

“In our conversation, it was apparent that despite some very real disagreements over policy we had one shared goal that was of primary importance: ensuring the safety of the people in both counties,” they wrote,

The three said they will meet quarterly in the future “to review operations and discuss any individual concerns going forward.”

Diane Baggett, Communication Manager for Oconee County, told me after she released the statement that the meeting with Gonzalez, Daniell, and Horton took place on Dec. 29 at Gonzalez’s office in Athens.

Baggett said that Daniell initiated the meeting. Horton has a background in law enforcement and was police chief at the University of Georgia prior to his retirement.


Jim Gaither said...

I'm glad OCS responded to FFRF, but it certainly took them long enough. Thanks for being the spur under the saddle, Lee.

Lee Becker said...

A person who left a comment but did not sign a real name pointed out an error in the earlier version of the story. I have fixed the error and thank the person for correcting me. I apologize for the error.
My intent is to publish only comments that include a real and correct name.
I also rejected another comment left under a false name.

Trey Downs said...

The DA should be absolutely ashamed of herself for those comments and should have to resign, immediately. She cannot serve Oconee County citizens with that severe of a bias towards us. She should also find new friends, if the ones she keeps in her circle think it is unsafe to go to Oconee County by herself.

Trey Downs