published Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Sumner schools shift religion policy after ACLU lawsuit

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The Sumner County Board of Education will change some of its policies in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee accusing the district of promoting Christianity.

The lawsuit, filed May 3 in U.S. District Court on behalf of nine anonymous students from four families, alleges the district has a widespread, unconstitutional pattern and practice of religious activities in schools.

The board on July 11 approved changes to three policies directly dealing with allegations that the district allowed Bibles to be distributed at Indian Lake and Madison Creek Elementary schools; a youth minister from Long Hollow Baptist Church was allowed to proselytize to students at T.W. Hunter Middle School during lunch; and that teachers at T.W. Hunter Middle were leading students in prayer during club meetings.

Schools now will either limit or eliminate student interaction with individuals distributing materials, such as Bibles, in order “to avoid coercion, proselytizing or the appearance of endorsement,” the policy states. School personnel must refrain from specifically promoting or announcing, to the exclusion of all other materials, the availability of another private organization’s materials.

Another policy revision spells out that visitors to schools may not approach or solicit students. Visitors present during the school day must meet only with the individuals they’re signed in to see.

The third revision says school personnel serving as club sponsors are prohibited from engaging in any conduct that creates the appearance of endorsement of the organization’s or club’s messages or ideas, but must only serve in a supervisory role.

Director of Schools Del Phillips declined to comment about how the policy revisions might affect students or school personnel.

The revisions are not a compromise with the ACLU but simply a clarification of policies and procedures, said Wesley Southerland, an attorney with the religious nonprofit American Center for Law & Justice, which is defending the school board in the case.

ACLU-TN Legal Director Tricia Herzfeld declined to comment on the revisions. A jury trial is scheduled for 2012.

The school board is expected to approve the policy changes on second reading Tuesday.

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