The Sensitive Subject of Religious Liberty Questioned In Dexter Schools

During the Public Comment portion of the Board of Education for Dexter Schools Sept. 25 meeting, one parent and his daughter challenged the school’s policy on student expression in matters of faith.

In a prepared statement, parent Matt Gibson “wanted to share a few comments regarding a pattern of activity that concerns me” he explained. The following is his statement:

“My name is Matt Gibson. I’m a father with students in the school district. I would like to share with you a few comments regarding a pattern of activity that has concerned me.

“My daughter participated in a chalk drawing at Mill Creek to welcome students to the school. The principal erased the words “God Bless America” which had been written under a chalk flag. The principal then expressed to the students, including my daughter, that those words violated school policy. In reality, the students did not violate school policy, but the principal did violate these students’ rights.

“The Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District declared that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they step through the schoolhouse doors. That includes their rights under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. Under both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, schools must respect students’ expressions of their religious belief. Under the Free Exercise Clause, the school may not burden a student’s exercise of their religion. Religious exercise includes expressing a belief in God. Likewise, under the Establishment Clause, the school may not show a preference for one type of religious belief over another. By erasing the students’ artwork, the school is violating the Supreme Court’s holding in Lemon v. Kurtzman by having the primary effect of inhibiting a student’s practice of their religion and by fostering excessive entanglement with religion because under the school’s current actions, it must monitor all of the students’ artwork to ensure it doesn’t violate whatever religious view the school appears to be espousing (right now, that view appears to be an anti-religious view). Simply having religious content somewhere on the campus does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. This is especially true when, as here, the religious content is simply among a much larger and diverse montage of student work, most of which is secular.

“The Supreme Court has been clear that religious clothing and symbols in a student’s work, if not disruptive, are a protected form of speech and may not be singled out for suppression. Students have the right to express their faith as long as they are not being disruptive.

“Schools must treat all groups equally, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliation. The school should not remove student expressions such as “God Bless America” any more than they should remove other student expressions, such as “Go Dreadnaught Football!”

“My daughter is also a participant in the upcoming school musical. One mandatory practice is scheduled on a Sunday, a day that we recognize as Sabbath. We notified the director that our daughter could not attend that practice due to her religious commitment. The director replied, “if a student has a conflict within that period usually we do not cast them because it is too difficult to work around those conflicts.” In fact, she has instituted a practice of screening for these conflicts at auditions. It should be noted that the director already excused students taking the SAT during a part of a mandatory practice.

“Schools have a burden to provide accommodations to students who request absences for religious reasons. These students may not be discriminated against. Missing one practice in an entire season is a reasonable accommodation. To threaten that a student may not get selected for key parts down the road because of her religious beliefs burdens her religion and puts her in the impossible position of having to choose between her faith and her chance to participate in school activities. No student should ever be put in that position unless the school can provide a compelling interest for why it is acting as it is. The Supreme Court has said these compelling interests are interests of the absolute highest order. Here, the interests cannot be of the highest order if the director is already allowing students to miss practice time to take SATs. The director is making a value judgment about religion. She is judging that standardized tests are more important than students’ religious practices—that is a value judgment the Supreme Court has forbidden again and again and again.

“Students are very impressionable. When a person with authority acts in ways that infringe on the rights of students, this situation is particularly dangerous. In my view, it is clear that our school district does not understand the actual laws and rights, and, in their effort to “be neutral” and “make all students feel welcome” is infringing and suppressing the rights of all students, not only those with religious beliefs and practices.

“The degradation of these rights puts students in an unfortunate position of choosing between beliefs and unlawful public school policies. That is a situation the law does not allow. Accordingly, I encourage our administration and staff to become appropriately informed to prevent unlawful practices or additional infringement of our students’ rights.

“Thank you.”

Matt Gibson’s daughter, Eden, also shared her comments after her father’s statement. Concerning the erasure of the words “God Bless America,” Eden told the Board, “We have the right to say that.”

She went on to describe other pressure points between her faith and school. Eden said there was distinct pressure to forego Sunday church services to attend mandatory Drama Club rehearsals when the schedule conflicts. She states the director told her that missing mandatory rehearsals “… would be a problem in the future if you would like to get bigger roles.”

Eden also described the pressure for students to attend the Annual Band Extravaganza traditionally held on Sunday afternoons. “Students are told it will affect their grade in a big way if they don’t attend,” she told the Board.

She asked the Board to “Over all, revaluate religious freedom.”

Acting chairperson for the evening, Dr Julie Schumaker, encouraged Eden for standing up and voicing her convictions. When Eden had finished, Dr Schumaker responded by saying, “Thank you very much. You did an excellent job articulating and I know it can be intimidating when you’re looking at a room full of adults who are sitting at a table. It feels like a courtroom setting. You did a really nice job.”

The Public Comments portion of the agenda does not allow for Board comment or discussion. Dr Schumaker assured Eden’s father, Matt, that the Board would be available for questions after the meeting and then added, “Thank you. I know you want a response and our administration will definitely follow up.”

We Love Dexter contacted Superintendent Timmis’ office for a response. Dr Timmis readily recognizes the sensitivity of the complicated issue but explained it was a misunderstanding of events.

There was a group of students who wanted to create a welcome message for new students in chalk on the entrance sidewalk to Mill Creek Middle School. They went to Principal Jami Bronson for approval of the project and shared with her their plan for the artwork. Principal Bronson approved the theme and plan.

After the students chalked their art, Principal Bronson notice several elements that weren’t part of the approved project – a welcome message for new students to Mill Creek. One of those items that was off the theme was an American flag with the words “God Bless America” under it.

The message was erased not because of its religious reference, but because it veered outside of the original and approved project. There were other parts of the original artwork also erased which were non-religious in nature but also out of context.

The subject of religious liberties is a fine line that must be handled with care. Dr Timmis wanted to emphasize the Dexter School System’s encouragement and support for students’ expression, religious or non. In a statement to We Love Dexter, he states,

“DCS is a champion for student rights and student expression.  We work diligently with our students and partner with our families to help students develop.  We have wonderful students and often have to learn together on situations of expression.  We would never do anything to infringe on students’ rights and are committed to working collaboratively to help our kids.”

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