Separating church and state: Mayor’s oath of office sparks larger debate

fr bobscottIn the last couple of weeks, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott has been called un-American, arrogant and an asshole, but he’s taking it in stride knowing he made a decision based on his conscience and not on fear.

‘In God We Trust’: Local governments asked to display national motto

fr mottoMembers of the U.S. Motto Action Committee have been making their way around the state asking county commissioners and town boards to display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” prominently on government buildings.

Book explores clash between religion and science

bookIn Lauren Grodstein’s novel The Explanation For Everything (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013, 336 pages, $24.95), we meet Andrew Waite, a biology professor and widower living with his two young daughters in Southern New Jersey. Andrew is an evolutionist, an atheist who at the same time is haunted from time to time by his recently deceased wife, Louisa. He is a good father and a provocative teacher, but along with his wife has lost the power to connect with others. He spends a part of each day writing angry, unsent letters to the young man, now imprisoned, who killed Louisa while driving drunk.

Hymnbook breathes life into Cherokee lyrics

fr cherokeehymnsIt’s Sunday afternoon, and a quartet of musicians — one guitarist, three vocalists — stands at the front of a small room whose rows of chairs hold about twenty people. The guitarist strums a few chords, and the voices join in a familiar tune, “Amazing Grace.” 

Same-sex marriages cause Swain magistrate to resign

fr magistrateIn the short walk from the doors of the Swain County Courthouse to the steps outside it, a couple of people stopped Gilbert Breedlove to shake his hand, ask him if it was true he was resigning his post as magistrate judge and express support. After holding the job for nearly 24 years, this was the last day that Breedlove would spend his working hours in the courthouse.

Growing the neighborhood: Claiborne preaches unity, community to Junaluska youth

fr claiborneShane Claiborne was a couple minutes late for his interview with The Smoky Mountain News, but for good reason. Claiborne and his entourage of Philadelphia friends-turned-family had encountered some crawfish that needed catching, and the job required a couple of extra minutes to splash in the creek. 

‘God is not fair’: Former Waynesville pastor talks themes of mercy and fairness in pages of new book

fr authorpastorFor George Thompson, the struggle to understand how a supposedly good God could be so unfair began with his birth. He came into the world just a week after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, a tragedy in which 14,000 Jews were killed and another 42,000 deported to concentration camps.

Church Shoes: ‘No catch’ with shoe giveaway in Macon schools

fr churchshoesNot everyone was happy about the free shoes. Betty Cloer Wallace was more concerned about the “holy war.”

Schools rebut charge of impeding efforts to start secular club

Haywood County Schools’ attorney has countered accusations that Pisgah High School administrators allegedly hampered a student’s attempt to form a club for atheists and non-religious students. 

Superintendent crosses swords, again, with Freedom from Religion group

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman once again has landed squarely in the crosshairs of a group devoted to protecting that legally mandated chasm between state and church.

Brigman sent a December email to his employees that included the line: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

And in a similar message posted on the schools’ website under “superintendent’s blog,” Brigman wrote: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

Big no-nos, according the national group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which last year also censured Brigman after the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart served as a commencement speaker for tiny Nantahala School in the northwestern corner of Macon County.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil. Brigman initially defended Stewart’s performance but later, under pressure, conceded that the vetting procedure by Macon County Schools for speakers had failed.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to the school system at that time after a local resident contacted the foundation expressing concerns about the commencement. Her letter asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future, which Brigman said it would do.

Markert, contacted following this more recent incident, said she was amazed that after such a recent go-round Brigman would again openly defy what the foundation considers a clear and unmistakable instance of violating the separation of church and state. A Macon County resident, as before, contacted the foundation with complaints.

“It just seems really surprising since we were in such recent contact that he’d make these overtly religious messages not only to the staff, but to the public,” Markert said from her office in Wisconsin. “I think he crossed the line and it was proselytizing.”

In her letter to Brigman this time, Markert wrote in part: “It is grossly inappropriate for you, as superintendent of Macon County Schools, to include religious references in any official public school email or blog posting, especially when those communications reach students. You, as a public school employee, have a duty to remain neutral towards religion.”

Markert noted that Brigman used a public school email account, which “cannot be used as a means of imposing your own personal religious beliefs.”

“As the ultimate educational role model for your district, it is incumbent upon you to not model unconstitutional communication lest it be emulated by principals and teachers who follow your lead,” she wrote.

For his part, Brigman said he is fully cognizant of the federal law mandating the separation of church and state.

“I am award of what can and can’t be done,” Brigman said. “I meant to wish (his staff) a Merry Christmas.”

Brigman said he planned to send Markert and the foundation a letter acknowledging their concerns.

Markert said there wouldn’t be additional fallout if Brigman did indeed follow through by doing that as promised.

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