The Freedom From Religion Foundation said it appears a Moulton Elementary teacher was illegally promoting Christianity to first graders in April when discussing Easter, but the Lawrence County Schools superintendent says the teacher was "well within her job description."
Last week, the foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, sent Superintendent Jon Bret Smith an email asking the school system to “immediately investigate” a complaint made to the foundation by a parent.
In the July 21 letter, Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Christopher Line wrote that, according to the parent, the teacher “taught students about Jesus Christ and Easter, and also provided students with religious coloring book pages to take home.”
Line wrote that the complainant reported the coloring book page "depicted Jesus Christ and a Bible verse, Mark 16:6, which says 'Jesus is alive.'”
Smith does not plan to comply with the request.
“From my point of view, an investigation is not warranted,” Smith said. “(The teacher) was teaching the course of study. The teacher was doing her job. Every teacher in the state of Alabama is charged to thoroughly teach the course of study. That is covered under two objectives in the first grade course of study.”
According to Objective No. 11 in Alabama's first grade course of study on social studies, teachers should “identify traditions and contributions of various cultures in the local community and state. Examples: Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hanukkah, Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo.”
Objective No. 12 in the course of study: “Compare common and unique characteristics in societal groups, including age, religious beliefs, ethnicity, persons with disabilities and equality between genders.”
Smith said the examples the state lists in the course of study support his argument.
“If Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa is in there, so also is Easter,” he said. “No. 12 talks about religious beliefs. Easter is religious beliefs. We’re definitely covered with the course of study. We want to make sure classroom discussions are based on the course of study. We teach what has been approved by the state.”
Line on Tuesday said he suspects the teacher was seeking to indoctrinate the students, not educate them.
“I highly doubt we will find out this was really a neutral curriculum discussing religion,” Line said. “It’s pretty clear here the teacher was using Easter as an excuse to convert children to Christianity. That is our understanding.
"You’re talking about first graders. They’re not going to have historical discussions about the Bible. It’s very easy for the teacher to cross the line. It sounds like the teacher crossed the line and was using Easter to cross those lines and push the Easter message with core Christianity at the students.”
Line said he wonders if the teacher gave the students a Kwanzaa coloring book page as well.
“I would feel more comfortable if the students had received Kwanzaa coloring book pages,” he said. “It would show that they were truly cultures, different religions. I don’t think that is the case at this point. We’re looking for what is right here and to make sure teachers aren’t indoctrinating students for Christianity. We want to know the real facts.”
Line said if the foundation is not satisfied with Smith’s response to their call for an investigation, legal action against the school system is possible. In the letter to Smith, he said public schools are legally prohibited from promoting a religion, and that using Easter "as a pretext to teach religious lessons in a public school is unconstitutional."
He said Tuesday that such religious instruction alienates some students.
“Everyone should feel loved being a part of their school,” Line said. “Elementary school students should not feel excluded. That is really why we do what we do. ... If they want to violate the rights of students and push religion on the students, there’s always a possibility of future litigation. If the district’s position is it’s OK for teachers to push religion on to the students, that will always be a liability for the district. Why do you need a Bible verse to teach about Easter?”
Smith said he expects to respond to the foundation’s request within the next two weeks.
In August 2019, the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged Morgan County Schools for planning to offer Bible classes through Piedmont International University, a private Christian college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In response, Morgan school board attorney J.R. Brooks told the foundation no agreement had been reached with the college and any Bible courses offered would be part of an online dual-enrollment program.
The issue came up shortly after the state Legislature passed laws requiring public schools to make available Bible study and religious history courses for grades 6-12.
At the time, state Superintendent Eric Mackey reminded superintendents that Bible-based courses should maintain religious neutrality and they should be for “academic enrichment, not spiritual or religious instruction.”