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Hall County reviews rules for religion in schools
System stepping up constitutional education efforts in wake of lawsuit
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With the first week of school underway, teachers and principals in Hall County are careful of how they address religion in school.

In July, the Hall County School District settled a lawsuit over prayer in the athletic program at Chestatee High School.

The district agreed to do more education about what is and what is not constitutional behavior.

Gordon Higgins, communications and athletic director for Hall County Schools, said Superintendent Will Schofield gave a refresher of what is appropriate at the district’s annual leadership planning meeting in July.

“His focus was on the key factors, one of which was training and education of faculty and staff on the provisions of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Higgins said. “The Establishment Clause addresses the specifics of the relationship between religion and government, especially as it relates to public schools.”

Schofield provided principals and their staffs with a guide for how to abide by the clause. Specifically, he passed on the 2003 Bush administration document on prayer in a public school setting.

The document states, “the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer.”

It goes on to break down religious expression, prayer or moments of silence during “instructional time,” student activities, graduation and more. It states public school officials cannot decide to include prayer in school-sponsored events, and forbids public school officials from “directing or favoring prayer.”

But, it also reminds school officials that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Teachers, administrators and other school employees cannot “actively” join students in prayer, if they are doing so in their official position or role, be it as a teacher in the classroom or a coach on the field.

While Schofield presented this information during a leadership meeting, Higgins said the district has plans to fold it into a professional development program.

“Our future plans, as (Schofield) told the principals and staffs at the leadership meeting, includes the possibility of adding this provision to our professional online compliance module, which Pioneer RESA has developed for our district,” Higgins said. “The module currently has multiple topics including proper handling of student records, copyright laws and professional ethics.”

The information isn’t new to any Hall County teachers, Higgins said, as the district has been using the Bush administration’s guidance for years.

“We have been using it to address all concerns that have come to our attention in relation to possible violations of the Establishment Clause in our schools,” Higgins said.

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