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Humanist group not satisfied with school system’s response on religious activity

POSTED: August 27, 2014 11:14 a.m.
A humanist group that accused coaches at Chestatee High School of leading students in prayer is not backing down after receiving a letter on behalf of the school district stating it will ensure all staff, students’ and residents’ rights are protected.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, responded to the letter by alleging that religious activity is continuing at the school and in fact “these practices have been ongoing, pervasive and longstanding.”

The letter contains a photograph of coaches praying with students at North Hall High School, which it states was taken shortly after the group made its initial complaint with the school district.

The group stated multiple students have reached out since the issue was first brought to light to express that they felt uncomfortable sharing their own beliefs because of the Christian bias.

“After our letter was sent, numerous Hall County citizens contacted us to thank us and confirm the extent of the problem there, but many also relayed a sense of being terrified of being discovered — actual concern for their physical well-being,” the letter states. “We are not suggesting that this problem is unique to Hall County, but neither do we believe that leaders within the community can shrug off responsibility by saying the cultural problem is out of their control.”

The group also noted that Superintendent Will Schofield’s email to staff did not address participation in prayer but only that faculty and staff should not lead prayers.

The group is asking the school system do the following:

Adopt a written policy prohibiting teachers, coaches and other school officials from leading, endorsing, facilitating and participating in prayer with students;

Eliminate all religious references from official team documents and promotional materials and adopt a written policy prohibiting the same;

Enforce said written policies by monitoring games and practices and by sanctioning school officials for noncompliance with the penalties assessed for similar school code violations.

Monica Miller, an attorney with the group, said in an email that she and another attorney have received between five and 10 complaints about religion in the district since their original letter was sent on Aug. 12.

Miller said she could not disclose the contents of those complaints, but that “all of those complainants wished to remain anonymous for their safety.”

Complaints mentioned in the letter included one about “religious stories” told by a high school wrestling coach and one about prayer in the marching band at Chestatee.

“The Christian religion was heavily seeded into the program and bothered me from the start,” the marching band student wrote.“There would always be a prayer before each performance, usually led by a student, but often prompted by our band director.”

The letter stated that, “The student, like many others, thanked the AHA for trying to make ‘Chestatee High School a place where people who are non-religious like myself and those who associate with other religions can feel more comfortable and open about their beliefs.’”

The group has also received “plenty” of hate mail specific to Hall County, several of which were threats, Miller said.

Schofield said Wednesday he had not yet seen the group’s letter and so could not respond directly to it.

“I can’t imagine that I’ll have much more to say than I already have, and that is that we fully intend to follow the law and feel like we already have a pretty good process in place,” Schofield said.

Phillip Hartley, an attorney representing the district through the law firm Harben, Hartley & Hawkins, said Wednesday afternoon that he had not yet reviewed the letter.

The firm issued a response to the original complaint Tuesday on behalf of the district. The response stated that the incident cited in the original complaint, coach-led prayer at Chestatee High School, occurred a year ago. It stated one of the coaches implicated is no longer employed with the district.

Schofield did not immediately respond to a request to identify the coach. However, Chestatee’s head football coach, Stan Luttrell, left the school last year for a position at Buford High School.


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