A middle school principal who sought to avoid controversy over the formation of a Christian club on campus created some when he sent an e-mail to his staff warning them against supporting or participating in religious activities while they are involved with students.
The e-mail from Principal Don Curtis was widely circulated Wednesday to parents, students, and members of the local community though its intended audience was teachers at Wilson Middle School in Fishersville, Va.
In the e-mail, Curtis wrote in a "candid style" that many interpreted as belittling and threatening toward his staff.
"There are students attempting to organize a 'Fellowship of Christian Athletes' organization here at school," he wrote. "As I trust common sense and your elementary knowledge of the law should remind you, the Constitution includes an amendment that expects 'The government will not establish any religion.'
"This means teachers can't support or participate in religious activities while in the official role of teacher," he added before venting his frustration.
"Perhaps I could find better words here," Curtis wrote, "but to be honest, this is so basic that I'm a bit frustrated I'm having to remind employees to not get involved with religion at school, other than its presence as a body of knowledge, for example in social studies."
The principle then went on to tell his staff that they can be as religious as they want when they're not in their official role as a teacher, which he said "starts anytime you're involve with students."
"Please check with me or your attorney if you need clarification so I can avoid termination proceedings for those of you that don't believe me or wish to test this concept. I'm being somewhat of a smart a&*, but I trust 'You're feeling me!'" he exclaimed.
After the principal's e-mail got out, The Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group, sent Curtis a letter warning him against creating a hostile workplace environment toward religion and discriminating against religious student groups such as the FCA.
The legal group said it had been asked by "several members of the community" to intervene following the e-mail's circulation.
In the Sept. 2 letter, John W. Whitehead, president of the institute, informed the principal of his misrepresentation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
"While the First Amendment does prohibit the government from establishing religion, it likewise prohibits the government from exhibiting hostility toward religion, interfering with the free exercise thereof, and discriminating against expressive activities based on the religious viewpoint of the expression," Whitehead explained.
"Actions by school officials that demonstrate hostility toward religious organizations undermine the very neutrality that the Establishment Clause was intended to foster," he added, referencing the case of Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va.
As Whitehead pointed out, teachers and other school employees are allowed to be involved with religious student groups if that involvement is not for purposes of administration or oversight.
"By intimidating teachers, through threat of termination, into refusing to provide the same types of administrative assistance to the FCA as are made available to other student groups, you are denying a fair opportunity to the FCA and discriminating against it," he noted.
That said, Whitehead encouraged Curtis to "correct the impression conveyed by your e-mail that the budding FCA group should be shunned by your staff."
"Such messages are not only directly contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act, but they also tend to leave hurtful, lasting impressions upon the students who absorb them," he concluded.
The Rutherford Institute, located in nearby Charlottesville, Va., is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.
Each year, the legal group handles over 1,000 requests for legal assistance.