The Freedom From Religion Foundation says Catoosa County schools have become too cozy with a Christian organization.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 year, Heritage High School Principal Ronnie Bradford asked the school's leadership class to form a partnership with a school in a Third World country. Lamar Brown, the system's director of student services, later introduced the students to the director of Nicamerican Missions, a nonprofit group that helps build schools, churches and homes.
The main objective of Nicamerican Missions is to evangelize, according to its Facebook page. After calling the organization's director, Heritage High School's leadership class raised money to build a school in a community in western Nicaragua.
The group formed impact2one, a partnership between Heritage High School and Nicamerican Missions. According to a website for the partnership, students pitched the plan to Catoosa County business leaders in December 2016, raising about $20,000 in 10 days.
But Madeline Ziegler, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the partnership is not merely a student-led initiative, and it violates the separation of church and state. She also objected to a practice in Catoosa County in which Ringgold High School construction classes make wooden crosses that hold American flags to honor local military veterans.
Concerning the foundation, she said the apparatus of the public school is promoting the work of a religious group that overtly tries to convert people. The partnership hosted a student-faculty basketball game in February to raise money for the school. A link to the partnership's website is displayed at the center of Heritage High School's own website. Also, you can donate money by sending a check to the high school addressed to E.K. Slaughter, the school's football coach and leadership class teacher.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, received a complaint from a local community member, Ziegler said. On July 21, Ziegler sent a letter about these issues to Renzo Wiggins, an attorney who represents Catoosa County Public Schools. Ziegler said she has not heard back from Wiggins.
Ziegler said school officials should encourage charity work — just not with a charity that is overtly religious.
"It excludes any students who are non-Christians and makes them subject to serious bullying from other students who see the school condoning the exclusion of their non-believing peers," Ziegler told the Times Free Press.
Last Wednesday, Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said in a statement: "The flag holders that the RHS construction class built to support honoring our veterans, and the money that our HHS students raised to build a school for underprivileged children are examples of our students working to serve others. The system's attorney is thoroughly researching the allegations from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and when he has completed this research he will respond to them explaining how our students can continue to participate in these service activities."
This is the second letter in two years the Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent Catoosa County, Ziegler said. In October 2016, a lawyer for the group told Wiggins that a baptism after a Heritage High School football practice was unconstitutional. Slaughter, the coach, supported the baptism, which was done in honor of a former student who died in a car crash earlier that month.
Ziegler said Wiggins told the organization that the baptism was done without the knowledge of school administrators. He assured the group that the school system would not endorse a religion, Ziegler said.
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