An attorney for a Virginia high school teacher said he was not aware of any complaints about her using a Bible verse in the signature of her school email account. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
May 4 (UPI) -- A Virginia teacher who was told by school district administrators to remove a Bible verse from the signature block of her work email alleges her constitutional rights are being violated.
Loudoun County Public Schools says the quote -- "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16" -- runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits governmental establishment of religion.
But Liberty Counsel, which represents the high school teacher, says the verse is non-school-sponsored private expression of personal faith and the district's rationale overlooks the free speech and religious free exercise rights of teachers.
The Florida-based public policy organization has sent a letter to acting Superintendent Daniel Smith requesting the district allow the teacher to restore the quote and confirm she "will in no way be subjected to discrimination because of her religious beliefs and expression."
"The Supreme Court and various federal courts have confirmed that organizations and individuals holding a religious viewpoint may not be subjected to discrimination on the basis of that viewpoint; nor may government consider religious viewpoint in order to censor private speech," the letter says.
The teacher seeks to inspire her students to excellence and the foundation for teaching is her personal faith in Jesus Christ, according to the letter. She suggested an alternative verse, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it," but that proposal was rejected.
Liberty Counsel redacted the name of the teacher and other identifying information before making the letter public.
Attorney Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said he is not aware of any complaints about the verse in the teacher's email. He told UPI his organization will file suit on behalf of the teacher if necessary.
"The school has no basis to censor and they're making a terrible decision," he said. "If they don't change their position, it'll be a costly one for the school."
Other teachers who work for Loudoun County Public Schools are allowed to have private expressions in their signature blocks, Staver said. He cited as examples: "Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our students," by labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. And, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," by abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Some teachers include motivational quotes in signature blocks, such as, "Have courage and be kind." Many list preferred pronouns, which communicates the teacher's personal belief that gender or sex is not binary, the letter says.
"They're censoring this message solely because it comes from the Bible," Staver said of the teacher's email signature.
He said two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, Shurtleff vs. City of Boston and Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, support the teacher's right to use a Bible verse in her email.
The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in May 2022 that Boston officials violated the constitutional rights of a civic association and its director when they denied their request to fly the Christian flag outside City Hall. The city said its refusal was based on a policy to refrain from flying non-secular flags on its pole in accordance with the prohibition of government establishment of religion.
Harold Shurtleff and Camp Constitution were represented by Liberty Counsel in a lawsuit that sought an order allowing them to hold ceremonies with non-secular flags at designated public forums. Staver argued that censoring religious viewpoints in a public forum where secular viewpoints are permitted is unconstitutional.
Boston paid an award of $2.125 million in attorney's fees to Liberty Counsel.
A month later, the justices ruled 6-3 that the Bremerton School District in Washington violated the First Amendment rights of football coach Joseph Kennedy by disciplining him for refusing to stop praying at the 50-yard line after high school football games. The district said it wanted to avoid the perception of school endorsement of religious activities.
Kennedy was placed on administrative leave after he offered a prayer at the conclusion of an October 2015 game and his contract expired during this period. He did not apply to return to the job and filed a lawsuit accusing the district of violating his constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court cited Shurtleff vs. City of Boston in its decision in the Kennedy case.
"Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy's," the opinion says. "Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment's Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor."
The Liberty Counsel letter says the district could promulgate a constitutional email signature block policy that treats private religious and secular expression equally or it could prohibit all private expression in email signature blocks, which would be "an unnecessary and unfortunate decision."
"Such a policy could require a disclaimer that 'LCPS permits private expression within email signature blocks that is solely the expression of the author and is not necessarily attributable to LCPS,'" the letter says. "Please be advised that personal 'pronouns' in email signature blocks remain private secular expression, which will support a cause of action if teacher personal religious expression is proscribed and teacher personal 'pronouns' are permitted."
Dan Adams, media and community relations coordinator for the district, said it is LCPS's practice not to comment publicly on individual personnel matters.
In a letter responding to Liberty Counsel's demand, Smith said the district allows occasional personal use of email for non-work purposes by employees but the teacher has been putting religious quotes in communications to students and their parents in her capacity as an LCPS employee.
"These communications are not private expression, but rather constitute school-sponsored speech bearing the ostensible endorsement of the School Division, particularly when such emails reflect the 'lcps.org' email domain," Smith says in the letter.
LCPS, as a local governmental entity, is barred from taking sides in religious disputes or favoring or disfavoring anyone based on religion or belief, or lack thereof, he said.
"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," Smith said.