Attorneys at the Freedom From Religion Foundation are weighing how to respond to a lack of response from Oconee County Schools to a request that it remove a religious display at Oconee County Middle School.
The national foundation based in Madison, Wisc., wrote to Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch in August and again in late October asking him to reply and to indicate what he did “to remedy this constitutional violation.”
Brook Whitmire, open records officer for Oconee County Schools, acknowledged receipt of the Freedom From Religion Foundation request and said it had been forwarded to the school system attorneys.
Legal staff of the Foundation said late last month that it has not received any response from anyone at Oconee County Schools and that it likely will send another follow-up message to Branch soon.
If Oconee County Schools does not reply to that third request, a staff member said, the Foundation will consider whether to proceed with litigation.
The Foundation also has acknowledged receipt of a separate complaint from someone in Oconee County regarding a baptism on school property after a football game last fall.
The Foundation has determined that it does not have adequate information about that complaint to respond and will take no action unless it receives additional details about the event.
Display And Letter
Christopher Line, a staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to Branch in a letter dated Aug. 23, 2021, “regarding a constitutional violation occurring in Oconee County Schools.”
|Picture Of Display Provided In|
Freedom From Religion Letter To Branch
Line said that the Freedom From Religion Foundation “is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including more than 500 members in and a local chapter in Georgia.”
According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation web site, the Georgia Chapter is based in Canton in Cherokee County.
“A concerned parent has reported that Oconee Middle School is currently displaying several bible verses in one of its hallways,” Line wrote.
“The display lists nine ‘apps for life,’ including ‘Know God, Please God, Trust God, and Love God.’” Line wrote. “Each of these ‘apps’ also lists a bible verse.”
“We write to ask that the District remove this religious endorsement from its property immediately,” the letter continues.
Line attached a picture of the display.
“The District violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols or messages,” 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 states.
“Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools,” he continued.
“The display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school,” line wrote to Branch.
“In recognition of the District’s constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion, please remove this display immediately,” Line said.
“Please reply in writing with the steps you are taking to remedy this constitutional violation,” the letter states.
I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Aug. 25. Stephanie Dyer, a legal assistant at the Foundation, confirmed that the Foundation had written to Branch on Aug. 23, the day I learned of the letter.
Dyer identified the complainant only as a “concerned parent,” as stated in the letter sent Branch by Line.
I filed an open records request via email with Whitmire on Aug. 27 asking for a copy of the letter to Branch from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I also asked for a time stamp indicating when the letter was received.
In addition, I asked for “Any and all correspondence from Dr. Branch to school administrators regarding this letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation” and “Any and all correspondence from Dr. Branch to members of the Oconee County Board of Education regarding this letter or the display at Oconee Middle School.”
Whitmire responded via email on Sept. 1 and attached the Aug. 23 letter from Line at the Freedom From Religion Foundation with its picture of the display attached.
Response From Attorney Expected
Whitmire added that this was “the only document in the school district’s possession responsive to your open records request, subject to the following exemption: Records which contain attorney-client communications are exempt from disclosure.”
Whitmire added that “Dr. Branch received the attached letter on Monday, August 23" and said that “A response from the school district’s general counsel is forthcoming.”
“If you would like, I’ll be happy to provide a copy of that letter to you once it is issued,” he wrote.
Whitmire said that Oconee County Schools is represented by Hall, Booth, Smith, of Athens, and Harben, Hartley and Hawkins of Gainesville.
I responded that I would like to receive the response from the attorneys, as Whitmire offered.
Whitmire has not provide any subsequent materials related to the Freedom From Religion Foundation letter of Aug. 23.
I have spoken with Dyer, Line, and others at the Freedom From Religion Foundation by telephone or corresponded by email nearly weekly since that first contact on Aug. 25.
All of those I spoke with told me that the Foundation had received nothing from Oconee County Schools in response to its Aug. 23 letter.
On Oct. 28, Dyer sent Branch an email message, which she provided to me that same day.
Dyer said she was following up “on our Aug. 23, 2021, letter regarding several bible verses on display at Oconee Middle School. A copy of the original letter from Staff Attorney Christopher Line is attached for your review.
“To date, we have not yet received a reply from you concerning our letter,” Dyer continued in that email message to Branch. “We expect a written response from you as to what actions have been taken to resolve these concerns.
“Thank you for your time and attention to this matter,” she said in ending the email.
She attached a copy of the original Aug. 23 letter.
Dyer wrote to me in an email message on Dec. 20 saying, “Sadly, still no response from the school district regarding our letter.”
“We will notify you as soon as we receive a response,” she wrote.
I have not heard anything more from her regarding a response from Oconee County Schools.
Dyer indicated in a telephone call from me on Dec. 3 that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had received a complaint about a baptism on Oconee County Schools property following a football game.
As was the case with the complaint about the display at Oconee County Middle School, Dyer did not provide any details about the complainant or the complaint itself.
In subsequent calls, Dyer said that the complaint was still under review.
In an email message on Dec. 20, Dyer said that while the Foundation has “serious concerns” about the issues raised in the complaint, the Foundation would need more information than was in the original complaint for the Foundation to take any action.
Anyone with additional information should contact the Foundation, she said.