By Heather Mullinix
The Cumberland County Board of Education narrowly approved a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee Thursday, voting 5-4 on a proposal that called for principal training and clear direction on the distribution of religious materials on school grounds.
"I feel like an agreement was reached that was very favorable and, quite frankly, I think it's a good agreement. I would like the board to approve this and get this agreement signed so we can get this matter put to bed," attorney Earl Patton told the board.
A letter from the ACLU to the school system dated April 18 stated that, on April 11, two members of Gideons International were allowed to distribute Bibles to fifth-grade students at Brown Elementary.
"The teacher introduced the Gideons to the class and explained that they were there to give the children Bibles. The teacher then called the students — row by row — and instructed them to take a Bible from the box of Bibles sitting on a table at the front of the classroom 'if they wanted to.'
"Fifth-grade student James Doe felt compelled to take a Bible as he feared ostracization by his classmates and teacher if he did not take one," the letter states.
The letter also states the principal told the parents the Gideons have been allowed into the schools to distribute Bibles and that "their actions had been approved by the Cumberland County School Board."
At that time, the board instructed Patton to negotiate with the ACLU and report back to the board.
Patton explained the proposed settlement did not require payment of any attorney fees or funds for any purpose.
"I wanted to be very specific," Patton told the board of the negotiated document. "There are things the law allows. The main thing is that the board of its employees do not take on that role of proselytizing and educates school leadership."
The agreement states Cumberland County Schools, "shall not authorize, sanction or knowingly allow the Gideons International, or any other organization not solely composed of and led by students, to distribute Bibles or other written materials of a primarily religious nature designed to proselytize public school students during instructional time in the classroom or during an organized assembly on school grounds during school hours."
A question was raised if that would preclude student groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or other such organizations from distributing information. Patton said he did not feel groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes would violate the settlement because, though these school groups have a faculty sponsor, the club meetings are led by students.
The agreement also states that the agreement does not apply to any distribution of materials, religious or secular, allowed by the laws of Tennessee, the United States or court decisions that are in effect at the time of the agreement.
The school system also agrees to distribute the agreement to all principals and conduct inservice training to education school leadership concerning the application of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, moved to approve the settlement as presented, adding, "I don't think we have any choice."
The motion passed 5-4. Voting in favor were Schlafer; David Bowman, 7th District representative; Josh Stone, 4th District representative; Charles Tollett, 1st District representative; and Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative. Voting against were Jim Blalock, 8th District representative; Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative; Gordon Davis, 5th District representative; and Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative.
Though Patton said the agreement could just show the individual names of board members voting in favor of the settlement, Janeway later noted that the board had approved the measure, though he had been on the losing side of the vote.
"We speak as a board. It's not me and I say one thing and Dan says another. The board voted so it should be the board in total. I don't have the right to speak as an individual," Janeway said.