School policy on religious holidays stirs debate in Tennessee county

Tuesday, December 8, 1998

A public school board in Tennessee has run into opposition over its proposed guidelines for religious activities during the holidays.

In mid-November the board of education in Williamson County, an affluent suburb of Nashville, postponed voting on religious holidays guidelines to be given to the county's principals. The one-page proposal contained five paragraphs that the board thought would help public school administrators deal with student religious practices in December. The board postponed voting on the guidelines after citizens complained the proposal was ambiguous and had been put together too hastily and without community involvement.

The board sent the proposal to its policy committee for further study. The committee met last night to accept more community suggestions. The county superintendent said the suggestions would be used to rework the guidelines.

Although the proposal begins by stating that “No religious belief or nonbelief shall be promoted by the school system or its employees,” it notes that religious holidays shall be observed in the schools. It also states that “Music, art, literature and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities, parties, and programs.”

Judy Saks, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Nashville, said that the school board should gain a greater understanding of the community before implementing the policy. Saks learned of the proposed policy in a meeting with Williamson County Superintendent Terry Grier. The policy was modeled after a sample policy created by the Tennessee School Boards Association, a nonprofit group that represents interests of school board members throughout the state.

Saks said the school board needed further meetings to gain input from more members of the community.

Saks added that she told Grier of her concerns regarding Jewish children and their treatment in the county's schools.

“I have talked with several Jewish parents who have said their children have encountered many problems with teachers and students,” Saks said. “It is apparent that there happens to be a lack of understanding as to what is proper and improper as far as religion is concerned in the schools.”

Mike Cherry, a board member, derided Superintendent Grier last week in an e-mail sent to other school board members for meeting with the Jewish group, according to a report in The Tennessean. Cherry's e-mail openly mocked Jewish parents' concerns about religious liberty in the public schools.

Grier said he was “very disappointed” in Cherry's comments.

“I think Williamson County has been homogeneous for so long that many of the issues surrounding differences have not been confronted here before,” Grier said. “As the county becomes more diverse, I think those in the public sector must look more closely at how we have done business in the community.”

Grier added that with the help of groups like the Jewish Federation, the policy on religious activities in the county's schools would be more comprehensive and would serve all students.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the Williamson County proposal should be reworked.

“It seems to me that these issues are quite complex and require the entire community to discuss what the current situation is and what the community feels is needed to ensure religious pluralism,” Weinberg said. “It is not wise to put together a policy on just the holidays in December. The policy should be focused on a wide range of issues that affect religious liberty in the public schools.”

Charles Haynes, The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center's senior scholar, also suggested that county officials seek more input before voting on the proposal.

“A new policy is needed that is comprehensive and broadly supported by the community,” Haynes said. “The district needs to address how religion is treated throughout the year – not just in December. And parents on all sides of the debate should be involved in developing the policy.”

Weinberg said that the board decided last night to hold off on adopting the proposal. Instead, the board said a committee of community members would be formed to discuss and develop guidelines for student religious activity for the entire school year.

She added that Williamson County's growing diversity must be represented in the discussions. “This is not just a Jewish issue, although that group has been the most vocal. Diversity in the county is growing; there are Hindus and Muslims, and therefore these discussions affect all the citizens of Williamson County.”