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Can public school teachers conclude emails to parents with a Bible verse?

A Virginia school district is facing a potential lawsuit over its effort to keep a teacher from having John 3:16 in her email signature

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Last year, the Supreme Court said a football coach at a public school could pray on the field after games without violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

But does that mean it’s also OK for public school teachers to include Bible verses in their emails to parents?

A Virginia school district concluded the answer is no, which is why it recently instructed a teacher to take John 3:16 out of her email signature.

Now, it’s facing a potential lawsuit over that decision, as the culture war over religion’s place in public schooling continues to grow.

“Lawyers with the Christian legal group Liberty Counsel said the Loudoun County Public Schools directive amounts to religious and viewpoint discrimination. They said (the teacher’s) colleagues are permitted to include other kinds of private expression from secular viewpoints in email messages, including the use of preferred pronouns,” Religion News Service reported.

In their demand letter, attorneys with Liberty Counsel highlighted the Supreme Court’s recent football coach ruling, noting that justices in the majority had objected to the fact that the school district involved treated prayer differently than nonreligious speech.

In Loudoun County, school officials are making the same mistake, they claimed, arguing that teachers who use their email signature for various secular purposes are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny as the teacher in question.

“The school district permits teachers to personalize their signature blocks with quotations, pictures, phrases or pronouns that are intended to express the teachers’ personal views on a variety of subjects, and that are attributable to the teachers, and not to the school district. For example, one teacher uses a quote by Cesar Chavez (‘Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our students’) and another has a quote by Frederick Douglass (‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’),” Liberty Counsel said in a press release.

Daniel W. Smith, acting superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, stood by the district’s decision in his response to the letter, stating that emails to parents are a form of official, rather than private, communication and, therefore, shouldn’t make religious claims.

“To be clear, LCPS’s determination is not based on any particular religious viewpoint and LCPS would take a consistent approach as it has here with respect to any religious expression incorporated in an LCPS employee’s email signature block of which it becomes aware,” he said, according to Religion News Service.

Outside organizations are divided over how the conflict should be settled, as well as over what types of public school policies violate the establishment clause.

These divisions have been present in American culture for decades and deepened when the Supreme Court first waded into school prayer conflict in the 1960s, as legal experts told the Deseret News last year.

Steven K. Green, a law professor and director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, said that many people see efforts to keep religious references out of public schools as an attack on American values, while others feel it’s essential for schools to be religiously neutral spaces.

As a result, “this issue is easily politicized,” he said.