Dalton, Ga., representative files schools 'religious protection' bill

Dalton, Ga., representative files schools 'religious protection' bill

February 16th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter is hopeful about his first bill, one he believes will protect students and teachers in Georgia who simply want to worship.

The bill would let teachers and coaches pray alongside students, decorate their desks with spiritual symbols and participate in religious clubs on campus. Carpenter, who took office in January, introduced the bill Tuesday. He said the whole legislative process — bringing the bill forward and getting legal advice and taking it to a committee — is a good learning experience for a freshman representative.

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The bill's opponents have a different perspective. They say it's a waste of time.

"Some of this is just dumb," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state. "A lot of this, they're making it seem like the schools are doing more repressive things than they are. Hopefully this bill will die a natural death."

Said Chris Line, the foundation's Patrick O'Reiley legal fellow: "I'm not sure why they would pass a bill that's going to be unconstitutional itself."

Carpenter, R-Dalton, said he's waiting for notes on the bill from legislative counsel. State Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Ringgold, and state Rep. Dewayne Hill, R-Ringgold, are co-sponsors. They did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

The bill is a copy of what State Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican running for governor, introduced on his side of the Capitol on Jan. 29. Carpenter said a constituent told him about the bill, and he decided to bring it to the House. Fundamentally, he believes teachers and coaches should be able to express their religious beliefs.

"I'm not a legal guy by trade," said Carpenter, a restaurant owner. "It looked like something that fit into my moral compass, if you will — something that I could morally agree with."

The bill is 10 pages long, with several elements. Among the highlights:

  • Public school employees can participate in student-led prayer and religious clubs.
  • Employees can decorate their desks with religious symbols.
  • In grading a student's work, a teacher may not penalize a student for simply sharing religious beliefs.
  • A school can't stop a student from sharing religious beliefs during morning announcements, at sporting events, pep rallies or graduations.
  • A school can't stop students from organizing prayer groups or religious clubs.
  • A school can't stop students from wearing clothing advertising a religion.

The main driver of the bill is the issue of teachers praying with students. The legislation is called the "Coach Small Religious Protection Act," named after John Small, a football coach at East Coweta High School. In November, after a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Coweta County Schools attorney advised Small and other staff they could not pray with students.

But even if Carpenter's and Williams' bills pass, Line and Gaylor say school employees still will not be able to pray with students. The issue was previously settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled an employee's participation is like an endorsement. Line and Gaylor said a coach praying with players may coerce others to participate, even if they don't feel comfortable.

The bill would allow staff to participate, so long as they act in their "personal" capacity. In theory, they would not be a teacher or coach for those moments.

"They try to create a fiction," Line said. "Maybe for a second, he's not the coach. Then he'll go back to being the coach? It doesn't make any sense."

Gaylor said the Supreme Court has already ruled other parts of the bill unconstitutional, including the provision to let teachers participate in religious clubs and decorate their desks with religious symbols. Other parts are not as clear-cut. Can students share their religious beliefs on the morning announcements, for example? Judges may have to sort that out.

Other parts of the bill are already the law of the land, Gaylor argued. She said students can pray, attend religious clubs on campus, wear religiously affiliated clothing and mention their religious beliefs in school assignments.

Georgia schools ranked 10th among all 50 states for generating complaints to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Gaylor said. Locally, the foundation complained to Catoosa County Schools officials after a Heritage High School football coach was present during a group baptism after practice. Line said the school board's attorney advised that administrators did not support the coach's presence.

Last year, the organization wrote a letter to Catoosa County Schools again, this time because a student leadership class at Heritage High School began fundraising for a Christian charity that builds schools, churches and homes in Nicaragua. Line said the foundation does not consider that issue resolved.

Said Carpenter: "Most schools in Georgia would probably prefer that people in Wisconsin (where the foundation is based) not tell us what to do. We all have our ways of interpreting things."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.