Moore County school officials address religious liberty concerns

mcslogoWe posted earlier about a group of pastors concerned about communications they were receiving from school system officials about their involvement at North Moore High School.

Dr. Neal Jackson, the leader of the pastoral group, told us he had a meeting Thursday with some school board members and system administrators.  He was presented with a letter, authored by superintendent Bob Grimesey, which laid out the system’s position:

[…] NMHS and Moore County Schools (MCS) have a legal obligation to respect both the rights and the restrictions imposed on its employees by the free speech, free exercise, and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. To that end, the Moore County Board of Education has adopted the enclosed Policy 5900 (Religion in the Schools), and our legal counsel has drafted the enclosed legal memorandum, which has been distributed to  all  school principals.

As indicated in the policy and in the memorandum, employees may, among other things, (!) privately pray, read scripture, and engage in other non-disruptive religliberalpublicschoolsious practice during “down time” in the work day to the same extent they may engage in comparable non-religious activities; (2) meet with other employees for prayer, Bible study, or other religious activities during lunch or before or after school to the same extent they may engage in comparable non-religious activities; and (3) join students and parents in prayer, church activities, or other religious activities outside of school and while acting in a purely personal capacity. When employees are interacting with students in the course of discharging their professional duties, on the other hand, they may neither promote nor disparage religion or any particular church or faith tradition. This means, among other things, that employees may not proselytize to students or take actions designed to influence them in their religious convictions or actions, such as inviting them to private church events.

It is important to note that the purpose of these rules is to enforce the religious neutrality  that  is required  of school  districts and their employees  under Supreme Court precedents.  The same rule that prevents  Christian teachers from inviting   students to services at their churches also prevents Muslim teachers from inviting students to services at mosques and atheist teachers from inviting students to meetings of atheist groups. The goal is by no means to suppress religion; it is, at least  in part, to protect religion by preserving it as a private matter to be taught at home and in the faith traditions and houses of worship selected by parents, not school  officials.

[…] public school

As explained in the enclosed policy and memorandum, the basic rule from the federal courts is that coaches may not actively pray with students when they are interacting with their students in their official  capacity  as  coaches,  including  at competitions, practices, and team meetings. Coaches may, on the other hand, maintain a “respectful posture”  while students pray voluntarily of their own accord. It is also fine for coaches to pray with students and parents  at  church  or  in the community when they are acting in a purely personal capacity and not as representatives of the school. Specific questions are considered in light of both general  legal principles and the circumstances of each  case.

Here comes the interesting part.  Our earlier post compares the performance of a play — heavy on sexual promiscuity and same-sex romance — with all of these restrictions on church activity.  Grimesey cites concerns for Muslims and atheists in his argument.  What about concern for Christian students indoctrinated and exposed by school officials to material — in this case, same-sex sexual relations — that runs afoul to their religious upbringing?  Here’s Grimesey:


It is impossible to articulate or define all of the possible “permissible and appropriate” content for a student play. For context, however, your June 9 email makes clear that your concern centers on the play “Love/Sick” that was recently performed at NMHS. There have been many misunderstandings on this subject, so please let me begin by clarifying some facts:

  • The play was selected by students and vetted by school staff;
  • The performance included only seniors and was performed only for members of the theater It was not an “open” production;Homer-Simpson-Wont-do-religion-in-Public-School-1024x712
  • Purvis included a note on the parent invitations warning them of the “PG-13” content;
  • The play lasted 30 minutes and consisted of 5 short segments about human relationships, including one on marriage, one on divorce, and one on love at first sight;
  • The original script was heavily For example, the scene that was posted on the Haymaker blog was entirely cut and not included in the performance. Many lines were also rewritten; and
  • In one scene, a boy is having trouble saying something to another boy and finally blurts out that he loves him.  The scene contains no sexual content or innuendo.

I understand why this subject matter would cause concern for some in our community and respect your point of view. Based on all the information I have received, however, I do not think it is accurate to say that this play “promoted homosexuality,” as you stated in your June 9 email. This was one brief scene in a series of vignettes, and homosexuality was not a key theme. One scene did briefly acknowledge the existence of same-sex relationships and same-sex attraction. It neither promoted nor condemned those social realities.

That said, it important to understand that MCS and NMHS have not determined that same-sex relationships or homosexuality are always fair game as subjects in student plays. Nor am I prepared to say that no student play may ever touch upon these issues or even acknowledge they exist. Decisions to approve plays are made by theater directors and principals based on all the unique circumstances of each case. In this case, Mrs. Purvis also checked with a senior administrator, Dr. Eric Porter, and he also approved the

It would not be feasible to have a district-wide policy about what content is appropriate in a school production, because each play must be looked at in context and as a whole. School administrators will continue to review each production on a case by case basis and exercise their best judgment as to how to balance a myriad of artistic, pedagogical, ethical, and moral concerns with each decision. As Mrs. Purvis has stated to you, this incident will serve as a valuable “reference point” in future discussions about plays selected by students. I am quite sure that she has taken your concerns to heart, just as she has taken into account the parents who have written in strong support of the play as presented. There are no easy answers when it comes to selecting and editing scripts for drama productions, but respect and understanding of differing perspectives is surely a healthy thing, and I thank you for sharing yours.

Oh, and here is the argument for not allowing a prayer at a graduation ceremony “in the name of Jesus”:

[…] Some of the general rules that govern this issue are explained in the enclosed policy and memorandum. Additionally, our attorneys have advised me thatgrimesay-moore-county-schools they are two key Supreme Court on subject. In one case, Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court ruled that a prayer led by an ad ult at a graduation ceremony was unconstitutional. In the other case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that a student-initiated prayer at a football game was unconstitutional.

These court cases are binding in North Carolina. There are also some other cases on prayer at graduation that are not binding in this state. As a public school system, we have an obligation to follow Supreme Court precedents and to apply them to specific factual scenarios. It would be difficult to say more on this subject without a lengthy legal dissertation.

For context, however, it appears that your concern centers on your understanding that a NMHS student was required to submit her speech for review and approval and that the religious content was “watered down” by the administration. What you may not know is that all speakers – both student and adult – are required to submit their graduation remarks for review and approval. In this case, Mrs. Purvis realized that a student’s original proposal to say “Let us pray” and then lead the entire audience in a prayer in Jesus’ name could be very uncomfortable for students of other faiths and likely unconstitutional as well. She therefore encouraged the student to reframe “Let us pray” into “I pray that. ..” followed by a discussion of the things the student hoped and prayed for. Not only doedownload (7)s this approach resolve the constitutional concerns raised by Supreme Court precedents, it also provides a fair and consistent way to respect the rights of students of all manner of religious perspectives. For example, imagine that a Muslim student wished to say “Let us pray” and lead a group prayer in Mohammed’s name at a high school graduation. Mrs. Purvis’ solution would avoid a scenario in which Christian, Jewish, or atheist students may feel pressured to participate in something deeply contrary to their beliefs.

This next part gets into the school system regulating activity INSIDE a private church facility:

[…] As a general matter, MCS and NMHS strive to adhere to the principles stated in the enclosed policy and memorandum with regard to religion in schools. It is not possible to address all possible scenarios that could fall withi n this broadly stated topic.

To put the issue in context, your June 9 email explains that several churches were told they can no longer say prayers or lead devotions with NMHS students when they provide meals before athletic events. Here is my understanding of the background to this issue:

  • Churches apparently started delivering meals to accommodate students who were required by a coach to stay together as a team on game days between the end of school and the beginning of the game;
  • Initially, the school would transport the students to the church, and students would eat Later, churches started bringing food to school to feed the athletes. In both scenarios, churches would lead a prayer or devotion with students before or during the meal; and330909
  • NMHS and MCS greatly appreciate the service the churches are providing. But Mrs. Purvis astutely realized that, because the student-athletes were under order to stay together, they were essentially a “captive audience” between dismissal and game time. She also realized that allowing adults to lead them in a prayer during a time when they were required to be together as a team was likely unconstitutional.

Mrs. Purvis’s reasonable solution was to allow the church representatives to identify themselves (including their church affiliation), to express their love and support for the team, and to offer a meal, but not to lead the students in a prayer or devotion. This approach allows church members to identify themselves as members of a faith community and to support the team without exposing the school system to liability or putting students in a position where they feel pressured to pray. Churches are, of course, completely free to minister to students outside the context of school and school-sponsored events in any way they see fit.[…]

And then there was the matter of the voluntary Bible studies in the school’s media center:

[…] Your June 9 email explains that this concern relates to three churches being told that they could no longer lead a Bible study or devotional during lunch hours at NMHS. Here is my understanding of some background on this issue:

  • A practice had emerged by which the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) held two meetings per month (later changed to one per month) in the scho1511456_origol’s media center;
  • The meetings were held during all three, consecutive, thirty-minute lunches, for an hour-and-a-half total; and
  • Church members would bring meals for the students and lead Bible study and devotions for FCS students during these

Mrs. Purvis discontinued this practice primarily because other students began complaining that the FCS was essentially taking over the media center, making it unavailable for them to use for other purposes. Her solution was to sched ule all student group meetings either before or after school. FCS now meets in the mornings four times a month, and parents and churches are allowed to (and sometimes do) bring food if they wish.

Another problem with the prior arrangement is that it is inconsistent with the federal Equal Access Act, which requires all non-curricular, student-initiated student groups to be afforded equal access to school facilities. FCS was not the only non­ curricular, student-initiated group at NMHS, but it was the only one allowed to hold meetings in the media center, during lunch, and for such a long period of time. FCS had privileged access, not equal access, to school facilities.

Finally, the prior arrangement also violated the Equal Access Act’s requirement that “non-school persons” may not “regularly attend” the meetings of non-curricular student-initiated groups. Allowing non-school adults to come to campus and lead three thirty-minute Bible studies clearly violates this requirement.[…]