Religious tolerance should be celebrated

To the Editor:

“In the beginning God created ….” Do you recognize those famous words? Many people do. They are the first five words of the King James Bible. Sacred to many.

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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