TUPELO • Following an incident earlier this month involving religious items at one of the district’s schools, Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said the district is not limiting free expression.
“It is certainly not the intent of the district to squelch peoples’ freedom of expression or their freedom to worship as they choose,” Weeks said on Tuesday.
Following a complaint made by the Freedom from Religion Foundation shortly before spring break, religious personal items and décor were removed from Saltillo Elementary School.
Then, on March 19, Weeks issued an email to all Lee County Schools principals reminding them of what is allowed by law.
“We are not supposed to display religious items on the walls,” Weeks said. “We are not supposed to display Scripture on the walls of the hallways, anything that is easily viewable when someone enters a hallway, or an office or a classroom.”
However, Weeks reiterated on Tuesday that the law does not prohibit all religious expression. Teachers may wear jewelry that expresses those beliefs, and students may wear jewelry and clothing that expresses their beliefs.
But a public institution cannot do so, Weeks said, adding the school district has to offer religious protection to all of its students.
Weeks additionally said that items on teachers’ desks may be displayed in those areas as long as such items are not facing the students. Such items include for example, framed inspirational items or items that can hang from a desk drawer.
The school district received a complaint shortly before spring break with two photos attached showing two separate occurrences of religious items displayed at Saltillo Elementary. The first photo showed a sign hanging over the door of a clerical office along a hallway not typically used by students which featured a worker’s name and a cross.
The second photo showed a painting in a hallway used by students which featured a tiger, flowers, birds and five or six words from a biblical Scripture with no scriptural citation.
“They are words where if you hear them and you have been to Sunday school, you know that is something from the Bible,” Weeks said.
A complaint was sent to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which reached out to the school regarding the issue.
These issues are still, at times, contentious today, but looking back at some of the cases leading to 2019 shows how the law has evolved pertaining to the expression of religion in schools.
Over the last six decades, several landmark Supreme Court cases have looked at how religion could be expressed in public institutions, such as schools.
The courts have looked at the constitutionality of prayers or the reading of religious texts in schools, or of teaching curriculum that could be viewed as favoring a specific religion or set of beliefs.
But the legal language is clear and consistent. Public schools are entrusted with a legal responsibility to foster an environment sensitive to the religions of all of its students.
In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court held religion is important to a majority of Americans, but Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion in public institutions.
And in Tinker v. Des Moines, the court ruled students’ freedom of speech should be protected and students do not lose those rights when they step onto school property.
“The law is the law and we have to follow it,” Weeks said.