Single complaint sends school district scurrying

Thursday, March 21, 2019
Chris Woodward (

no crossA public school in northeast Mississippi has agreed to take down religious materials after receiving a letter from self-described "freethinkers" questioning the constitutionality of those items being displayed on school property.

UPDATE (3/22/2019) - An attorney for a pro-family organization says a school district in northeast Mississippi may have put itself in potential jeopardy in its attempt to "flee a bully." Read more...

Original story:

Gary Carnathan, attorney for the Lee County School Board, says he received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) expressing concerns about two items at Saltillo Elementary School, which is part of Lee County Schools (LCS).

"One of [those items] was a scripture in Jeremiah, and one of them was a cross," Carnathan told OneNewsNow on Thursday. "[FFRF] asked that they be removed, that it was a violation of the church and state matter – and so I investigated, and those things were there."

As a result of his findings, Carnathan determined that the school should not have the items in the hallway and that they should take them down.

An emailed memo from Jimmy Weeks, the superintendent of Lee County Schools, offered similar instructions to staff and administrators at other schools under his authority – and provided information related to a "complaint" presumably filed with FFRF:

"Our school board attorney, Gary Carnathan, received a letter from the Freedom of Religion Foundation [sic] concerning the display of religious symbols at one of our schools. A concerned community member took pictures of crosses and paintings with scriptures to attach to the complaint. Despite my own personal feelings, it is unconstitutional, and therefore unallowable to display religious symbols on school property. This means classrooms, hallways, and offices. Let's make sure this is not taking place."

Asked whether he was aware of law firms that represent schools for free in similar situations, Carnathan said yes, but that he did not contact them.

"You cannot have religious displays on school property as a general rule," the attorney said. "There were two things in the hallway and I basically indicated that we could remove those – and I have not even contacted these people back to tell them that they'd been removed."

Carnathan went on to say that, like Weeks, he doesn't agree with rulings on these situations but that he feels he has no other choice.

"I'm a lay minister in the Presbyterian Church and have been for 25 years," he explained. "I don't agree with the way that the law has been written on this situation, but I'm going to have to apply the law as it has come down from the United States Supreme Court – and it basically says you cannot have religious displays on school property."

Anecdotal information from employees of at least one other school in the Lee County district suggest that similar items were taken down on Monday.

3/22/2019 - Clarified that memo from Mr. Weeks was distributed via email, and that it was directed to staff and principals - not teachers. The term "clothing" did not appear in Mr. Weeks' email as originally reported.

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