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Interim Superintendent David Fonseca accepts a framed ‘In God We Trust’ poster from Rick Cornejo of the American Legion Post 130 on Monday.

photo BY KELLEN SHORT | WATAUGA DEMOCRAT



Originally published: 2013-12-14 16:02:07
Last modified: 2013-12-14 16:16:49

Humanists still concerned about posters

Western North Carolina Humanists is continuing to put pressure on Watauga County Schools to give its posters the same treatment as others donated by the American Legion -- or remove those posters entirely.

Now, the cause has support from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, and WNC Humanists vice president Cash Wilson says a lawsuit is possible.

"The bottom line is, they can't allow one and not allow everybody," Wilson said of the school system.
The WNC Humanists offered last month to provide posters quoting the 1979 Treaty of Tripoli. The posters read, " ... the United States of America is NOT, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The posters were offered following the school system's  acceptance of "In God We Trust" posters from American Legion Post 130. The statement is the national motto.

Interim WCS Superintendent David Fonseca officially accepted the American Legion posters at the Watauga County Board of Education meeting Monday, and one poster is now hanging in the school board chambers.

School board attorney Paul Miller said Monday that the typical procedure is for the central office to be the location where such donations would be proposed.

"We can't guarantee that the materials will be used, and we won't give updates on how they're being used," said Miller, who said the choice of whether to use or post instructional items was an educational decision.

North Carolina statute says school boards "shall allow and may encourage" the reading or posting of documents reflecting U.S. history, including, but not limited to, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto.

"Local boards, superintendents, principals and supervisors shall not allow content-based censorship of American history in the public schools of this state, including religious references in these writings, documents and records," the statute says.

Although the school system also pledged to accept the Humanists' posters, the expectation for placement is different, schools spokesman Marshall Ashcraft said last month.

"There is an expectation that the posters that say 'In God We Trust' would be displayed in schools, and there is an expectation that principals will consider the display of the posters regarding the Treaty of Tripoli citation," Ashcraft said.

He noted that the Treaty of Tripoli is not specifically mentioned in the state statute, "although that is clearly a historical document."

Wilson said this week that regardless of what the state statute says, displaying the "In God We Trust" posters would be a violation of federal law.

"They're definitely not appropriate, and we've heard this on the federal level over and over and over," he said.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to Fonseca on Nov. 27, saying they were contacted by a "concerned local resident." The foundation does not identify its complainants.

The organization represents nonbelieving Americans and aims to protect the constitutional principal of separation between state and church.

"We write to inform the district that its current position constitutes illegal discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause," the letter read. "The clearest, safest course is for the district to adopt a policy that prohibits the posting of any displays donated by third parties."

The organization requested that the school system respond in writing with the steps it would take to address the constitutional concerns.

"It's FFRF's position that schools should be staying out of the religion business altogether," said constitutional consultant Sam Grover of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "These particular 'In God We Trust' displays are kind of conflating patriotism with religion, and we think that that's a toxic message to be sending to school children."

Grover said if the foundation does not receive a response, it will follow up with another letter.
But Grover said starting a legal battle is a different matter.

"Deciding to move forward with a lawsuit is obviously a multistep and complicated process," he said. "There are strategic considerations, there's lining up an attorney within the area locally to represent us, and we actually have to find complainants -- we need to find an actual client who wants to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit."