An e-mail that passed along President Bush’s proclamation of the National Day of Prayer got a Dallas public school employee in trouble with her supervisors, according to a federal lawsuit filed yesterday by the public interest firm American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ.
The ACLJ is challenging a Highland Park Independent School District policy that prohibits employees from using e-mail to communicate religious messages. The rules specifically bar “religious worship” and “proselytizing.”
“All this individual did, in effect, was distribute the text of the president’s message, and the school district is saying that raises serious constitutional issues,” Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel of the ACLJ, told WorldNetDaily.
According to the suit, school officials told LaDonna DeVore of Mesquite, Texas, who works in the district administration office, that her April 30, 2002, e-mail distributed to colleagues was inappropriate. She was warned that further use of the e-mail system to communicate religious messages could result in suspension of her e-mail privileges.
The ACLJ suit contends that the district policy violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the “free exercise of religion,” and the 14th Amendment, which ensures that citizens are not denied “equal protection of the laws.” The complaint requests that the court find the school district’s policy and actions unconstitutional and asks for an injunction to prohibit continued enforcement of the policy.
The Dallas school district permits employees to use the e-mail system to communicate both work-related and private messages, the ACLJ said in the complaint, and also routinely permits e-mail that include jokes, chain messages, invitations to events, exhortations to encourage others, and messages with religious themes.
In her e-mail, DeVore wrote a note above the copied text of the president’s proclamation which said: “The following proclamation by our president is an incredible statement by the leader of the free world, and I encourage you to pass this on to your friends and colleagues to set the stage for the National Day of Prayer this Thursday, May 2.”
Roth argues that Supreme Court rulings over the past decade have reinforced a principle that “once a government makes facilities available for private use it can’t discriminate against citizens who want to use those facilities for protected religious expression.”
The school district did not have to open up its e-mail system to private use, he explained, but once it did, it “can’t discriminate against somebody because they want to use it for perhaps a religious motivation. And that’s what happened in this case.”
District administrators were away on a retreat this week and unavailable for comment, according to a Highland Park employee contacted by WND.
The district has 20 days to respond to the ACLJ’s complaint, Roth said.
The school district’s argument squares with the constitutional interpretation of groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which insist that the First Amendment establishes a strict “wall of separation” between the state and religious expression, a phrase a 1947 Supreme Court decision borrowed from a letter by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Americans United opponents maintain that Jefferson and the other founders intended only to prevent a European-style official religion, not separate religion from public life. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …”
In a statement after the National Day of Prayer, or NDP, Americans United said that for “supporters of church-state separation, the fact that the NDP even exists as a government-endorsed exercise is troubling.”
“Those concerns were amplified,” the statement said, “by the bold intermingling of government, politics and religion that dominated this year’s activities,” led by Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Americans United said it was troubled that over the last decade the “Religious Right” task force “has effectively taken the lead in organizing and promoting NDP events.”
The NDP was established as an annual event by Congress in 1952 after a history of occasional official prayer proclamations by presidents dating back to the country’s founding.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn supported the controversial June 26 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that incorporating “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance was an “impermissible endorsement of religion.” The decision later was stayed by the ruling judge after a massive outcry by lawmakers and citizens.
Roth considers the Dallas case almost as “absurd” as the Pledge decision.
“We run up against cases that could be problematic in terms of the Establishment Clause,” the first phrase of the First Amendment, he said, but DeVore’s situation is “so benign, it’s so ridiculous.”
“She’s just passing on the president’s proclamation,” Roth said. “He’s our president; he’s a government employee, just like she is.”