published Friday, February 8th, 2013

Religious song sparks complaint at Lakeview Middle School

Freedom from Religion Foundation letter Catoosa County Public Schools
Freedom from Religion Foundation letter Catoosa County Public Schools

A North Georgia middle school teacher is being asked by a First Amendment watchdog group to keep her hymns in church — and out of the classroom.

Lakeview Middle School sixth-grade science teacher Heather Moorman will not face disciplinary action after singing a religious song to her class, school officials say. But the Freedom from Religion Foundation is calling for measures to prevent educators from crossing constitutional lines.

The foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state, sent a letter Feb. 1 to Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese alleging Moorman sang religious songs and proselytized to students during school hours.

Reese did not return phone calls Thursday, but school spokeswoman Marissa Brower said the school system investigated after receiving the foundation's letter. The investigation revealed that students had asked Moorman to sing a song that had religious themes.

The incident happened early in the school year, Brower said.

A faculty member alerted administrators, who spoke with Moorman, Brower said. But no other complaints were made and the investigation only happened this month, after the foundation's letter arrived, she said.

The incident was described as isolated, and no disciplinary action was taken, Brower said.

Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the foundation, said Thursday that Georgia ranked No. 4 on the foundation's worst First Amendment offenders list -- right beneath Tennessee at No. 3, Texas at No. 2 and Florida at No. 1. The list is based on the number of complaints the foundation received in 2012.

Seidel said a Catoosa resident, who, he declined to identify, gave the foundation a different story about Moorman.

The resident told the foundation in late January that Moorman regularly plays her acoustic guitar to students and sings "Jesus is My Savior" and other songs which the resident said were "essentially prayers," Seidel said.

He said the client complained that Moorman shared her religious experience and "witnessed" to her sixth-grade students.

"Any one of those things is way out of bounds in terms of the Constitution," Seidel said.

In the letter to Reese, Seidel requested an immediate investigation and asked her to "take prompt action to halt religious instruction occurring at public schools in [her] district."

Citing a litany of federal court cases, Seidel wrote that promoting religion in public schools violates the establishment clause in the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion.

Whether students asked Moorman to sing the song is irrelevant, Seidel said, because during class, the teacher is on the public's dime.

"Even if a student asks a teacher to sing a song, the teacher can't sing a religious song in class. If the student asks the teacher to say a prayer, the teacher can't say a prayer," Seidel said. "I'm not looking to see that this teacher faces disciplinary action, but what this does is shows a lack of understanding of the strictures of the Constitution."

This is not the first time the Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent letters to public organizations in the greater Chattanooga area.

• In 2012, the group sent letters to the Hamilton County Commission and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga about both organizations' prayer practices. Letters also were sent last year to Ridgeland High School's administration alleging its football team received church-sponsored meals and religious messages before games.

• In 2010, the foundation sent letters to Soddy-Daisy High School concerning prayers broadcast over the stadium's loudspeaker before football games.

• In 2004, the nonprofit won a decision at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Rhea County Schools for the school allowing Bryan College students to teach elementary school Bible classes.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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