Texas earns a D for charter schools as Frisco group plans its first
Dallas Morning News, Frisco Blog
4:30 PM Tue, Nov 30, 2010
Jessica Meyers/Reporter, Dallas Morning News
Should the principals be held liable for enforcing the Plano ISD's policy on religious expression?
The 5th Circuit will decide.
Appellate court will weigh Plano principals' role in banning religious candy canes
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News
Plano's long-running "religious candy cane case" resurfaced today, when a federal appellate court heard arguments surrounding the responsibility of two school principals named as defendants in a religious-freedom suit.
Three judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals met to hear the arguments in a packed courtroom at Southern Methodist University, where the court is based this week.
The candy cane controversy arose in 2003, when administrators at Plano’s Thomas Elementary School stopped an 8-year-old boy from distributing candy cane pens with religious messages at a winter holiday party. A year later, with assistance from the Plano-based Liberty Institute, the boy's family and three other families sued the district on free speech grounds.
The Plano school district later revised its policies to allow students to pass out religious materials at designated times and locations.
Last December, the appeals court ruled that the district’s new policy was constitutional. But it allowed a district court to determine the liability of two school principals. The district court ruled against the principals; today's session was their appeal.
The principals named in the case are Lynn Swanson from Thomas Elementary and Jackie Bomchill, the former principal of Rasor Elementary School.
Lawyers for the principals argued that a free speech violation was not “clearly established,” especially in the case of school administrators, who have jurisdiction to regulate children’s activities in schools.
“It’s like in baseball when the tie goes to the runner,” said Thomas Brandt, a lawyer for the principals. “It’s a close call. And when the law is not quite clear, qualified immunity protects officials.”
But Liberty Institute attorneys said the principals showed “viewpoint discrimination” by banning items with a religious message from events like holiday parties, while permitting other, nonreligious items.
“We are very encouraged,” Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute, said as everyone filtered out of the small, carpeted courtroom. “We finally got a day in court to get to the real issues - that elementary school kids do have First Amendment rights.”
The judges will issue a ruling in the coming months. The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, will decide this summer whether to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Plano school policy. Another aspect of the case is still being adjudicated in district court in Sherman.
Yesterday, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling -- declaring the Plano ISD's policy on distributing religious literature constitutional.
The appeal was filed by the Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, a Christian organization founded, according to its web site, "to protect religious freedoms and First Amendment rights for individuals, groups and churches".
The Liberty Institute filed the original lawsuit in the Federal district court in Sherman, alleging religious discrimination after Jonathan Morgan, then 8-years-old, wanted to distribute candy canes with an attached religious message to fellow classmates at his third grade winter party. School administrators would not allow it.
The Liberty Institute states that, "This is an ongoing case that has the potential of cementing many of the religious freedoms for our children that have taken decades to restore.
Writing for the 3 judge panel, Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote the majority opinion in the case styled Morgan, et al v. Plano Independent School District:
- 30 minutes before and after school;
- three annual parties;
- recess; and
- school hours, but only passively at designated tables.
In upholding the policy, Higginbotham noted that:
After analyzing the arguments, the court stated:
There are more appeals pending in this complexly litigated case.
Is Thomas Jefferson's famous "wall of separation between Church & State" relevant in Collin County?
Tonight (September 21), the Collin County Commissioners Court will meet in special session to hold a budget hearing and conduct other business.
They are not meeting in their brand new Jack Hatchell Administration Building. Instead, they're going to church.
The meeting will be held at the First Baptist Church in Melissa. I find that troubling.
I find the choice of meeting place troubling because it is in a church when there are many other suitable government buildings in northern Collin County. I find it especially troubling because it is being held at First Baptist in Melissa.
Since 2002, the pastor of First Baptist is the Rev. Trey Graham. Graham, an unabashed social conservative broadcasts a radio talk show on a Christian Talk Radio station that co-mingles political and spiritual themes. For example, last week's program was a discussion of President Obama's health care plan and the upcoming race for Texas Governor.
His blog, Faith Talk, often interviews government officials, sends questionnaires to candidates for local office, and campaigns in local option elections. During the last presidential election, Graham wrote several articles praising Sarah Palin and criticizing Barrack Obama.
In 2006, Graham wrote in his blog that, "As a pastor, my calling is to help others find God and find a place of service in God’s kingdom. My desire is to persuade followers of Jesus Christ to live for the Savior outside the walls of the church, letting their faith guide their politics. I believe our county, state, and nation would be well served by having faithful Christian believers in positions of political influence."
Last year, the commissioners court appointed Graham their county "chaplain". They also paid him to moderate workshops designed to formulate new mission statements.
You don't have to be a 'knee jerk ACLU'er' to be concerned that the choice of meeting at FBM is disturbing. This is a church led by a pastor who is a political activist, and who has worked hard to influence policy on local, state and national issues.
The Reverend Graham is welcome to his political views, he has a right to them... but the County Government represents ALL the citizens in Collin County and ought, no must, keep its affairs at arm's length to that of any church.
Two recent local news stories illustrate the clash between religion and society in Collin County.
In the first, Frisco ISD allow the Gideons (better known for putting bibles in hotel rooms) to set up tables in schools once a year to distribute Bibles to students. Some parents objected.
The Dallas Morning News' Frisco Blog reports that the ACLU is looking into the issue to determine if there are any 1st Amendment violations. 'll be surprised if any legal action is filed, most likely the ACLU is just firing a 'warning shot' to keep the playing field level.
I really would be interested in seeing how FISD and the community would react to the Plano Mosque setting up shop in one of their High Schools to distribute Korans, or say if the American Humanist Society wanted to distribute Huxley.
The second story is more disturbing.
Channel 11 News reports that an employee of a McKinney chiropractor charges that the good 'doctor' fired her for being an atheist. The 'doctor' does state that he runs a Christian workplace, and that until recently he did not know that the employee, who recently had a mastectomy and is battling stage IV breast cancer, was an atheist. The former employee has filed complaints with the EEOC and the Texas Workforce Commission. My guess is that she's going to win big time - and that 'doctor' is in real need of some counseling on both the 1st Amendment and the 2nd Greatest Commandment.
ACLU investigates Frisco bible incident
5:49 PM Thu, May 21, 2009
Jessica Meyers/Reporter / The Dallas Morning News
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has launched an investigation into the distribution of religious materials in the state's public schools. This follows the Bible hand-out by Gideons International at Frisco secondary schools last week.
The Austin-based group has filed an open record requests with the Frisco ISD as well as the Marshall, Plano, Westwood (Palestine), Wichita Falls and Wylie (Abilene) districts.
"We have gotten a number of complaints from parents and students and they seem to be escalating," said Lisa Graybill, the ACLU of Texas' legal director.
The organization is looking into whether the schools are pushing the material rather than merely displaying it. Graybill said Frisco was one of a number of Texas schools dealing with this issue and is not necessarily at fault.
"What we are looking at is excessive entanglement and coercion," she said.
"When a school invites them into the classroom and allows them to walk down the aisles, they are endorsing rather than just making the material available."
Some of the complaints involved shaming or abuse by other students, another reason to examine the incidents, Graybill said.
"What's often lost on some folks is that we are actually in support of religion. It's so serious we want to preserve that right and let parents do as they see fit, not the schools."
link to story....
As an atheist, Amanda Donaldson of McKinney? said she had no problem working for a chiropractor who runs a Christian-based practice. However, Donaldson claims he had problems with her.
"He said, 'I don't like the negative behavior you're exhibiting because you don't have God. You need to accept Christ,'" Donaldson said.
Donaldson filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Texas Workforce Commission, claiming she was fired May 4 from Dr. Scott Dawson's office in McKinney? because she's an atheist.
Donaldson claims he told her, "There is no room for your thoughts and opinions on God in my work place. Would you please give me your key?"
Donaldson is being treated for breast cancer. She says Dr. Dawson read a blog on a cancer-fund website established for her. That's where Dr. Dawson admits to reading anti-Christian remarks written by Donaldon's husband.
"They (Christians) are very hypocritical people. Not all of them. My dad is a Christian, and he's very understanding," said Brant Donaldson, Amanda's husband.
But Dr. Dawson said he had no idea that Amanda was an atheist while she was employed at his office.
"The fact that she does not believe in God is relatively new news to me. She prayed with some folks at different times. So I have seen her claim to be a Godly woman," he said.
Dr. Dawson said although he had serious issues with Amanda's job performance, he never fired her. He claims she left on her own.
"Amanda was not fired. She stormed out after we had a disagreement on the quality of her work one morning," he said.
Dr. Dawson said Christianity is a major part of his life and it's clearly evident in his office. However, Dawson said it was not a factor when the two parted ways.
link to story....
The Plano based organization, Liberty Legal Institute, has been at the forefront in fighting church/state issue legal battles and in defending Christian religious rights. It's mission statement states its goal is, "To achieve expanded religious freedom and family autonomy through litigation and education designed to limit the government's power, increase the religious rights of citizens and promote parental rights."
Last week, the LLI won a case in Plano when it represented a local Vietnamese Christian Church against the City of Plano. A few years ago the LLI sued the Plano ISD over a religious Christmas message about candy canes a student had been prohibited from distributing at school.
The home page of the LLI describes its role as,
|"Liberty Legal Institute (LLI) is a 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 1997 to protect religious freedoms and First Amendment rights for individuals, groups and churches. LLI offers its assistance pro bono to ensure all individuals and groups can thrive without the fear of governments restricting their freedoms.|
Liberty Legal consists of staff attorneys and a network of over 120 dedicated litigators committed to successfully battling in the courts for:
* Religious freedoms
* Student's rights
* Parental rights
* The definition of family"
Recently however, the "religious freedom" group departed from its mission when it sent its lawyers to Alaska to defend Governor Sarah Palin against a corruption investigation by the Alaska Legislature. The LLI filed a suit to stop the legislature from investigating Palin's role in the firing of a state trooper.
In an LLI press release, Hiram Sasser, director of litigation at Liberty Legal Institute and co-counsel in the case, said, “No government official should be allowed to abuse their power to advance their political or personal agenda for a smear campaign in violation of the constitutional guarantees of a fair and impartial investigation.”
It is unclear what parental or religious freedom issues could be the basis for LLI's intervention in what has become known as "Troopergate". It is seems more likely that the LLI lawyers could not separate religious issues from state issues - a situation rich in irony given their stated mission.
Judge overturns Plano zoning decision that blocked church
Thursday, September 25, 2008
By ED HOUSEWRIGHT / The Dallas Morning News
A judge on Thursday overturned a Plano zoning decision that had kept a small Vietnamese church from moving into a building it bought.
State District Judge Greg Brewer sided with the Plano Vietnamese Baptist Church, saying the city Board of Adjustment was wrong to refuse the church a zoning variance in April.
Pastor Thomas Le and about 75 church members and supporters attended the hearing and cheered the ruling.
“I thank God,” Mr. Le said. “I’m kind of overwhelmed right now.”
Liberty Legal Institute, a Plano-based religious advocacy group, represented the church in its suit against the city.
“This is what America is about,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel. “The idea that these people escaped Vietnam but had not been allowed to enter their own church is unthinkable.”
Assistant City Attorney Victoria Huynh argued the Board of Adjustment acted correctly. It rejected a city staff recommendation to grant the Plano Vietnamese Baptist Church an exemption to a city ordinance that requires churches to sit on at least 2 acres.
The church has 1.2 acres in a diverse residential neighborhood at Avenue G and 17th Street near downtown Plano.
There's two kinds of southern hospitality.
There's the friendly neighbors who greet the new folks on the block, no matter who they are, bringing food baskets and trying to make them feel welcome.
Then there's the white sheet and hood hospitality that can be unleashed to protect a community from any threat to its cherished beliefs.
Wylie has a history of both.
Some of the good old fashioned southern "get along with the neighbors" hospitality is sorely needed these days in the south-eastern Collin County town of Wylie.
The issue is over prayer, specifically prayers to Jesus Christ at school board and school bond committee meetings.
It all came to a head last month when a Jewish member of a school bond committee objected and stopped a recitation of the Lord's Prayer before a committee meeting. While the protest shocked the members of the committee, they had the good grace to complete their devotions with a moment of silence.
Over the next few weeks, public statements and emails flew back and forth.
Mikki Lewis, who was the board member objecting to the prayer wrote letters to the school board and superintendent, accusing the district of, "making us sit through invocations involving one's faith and/or choice of god."
Taking the argument one step further, Ms. Lewis also wrote, "I would like to know what we the parents... need to do to stop these invocations at all school-related functions".
Trustee Sue Nicklas was perhaps the most outspoken, writing in response, that there is, "no such thing" as separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights, and that the intent of the founding fathers was to "keep government out of religion".
With that take on American History, the battle lines were drawn.
Ms. Nicklas also wrote, "in ten years as a trustee, you're.... the first person that has ever had the audacity to interrupt God and one of his children in prayer."
Lewis then responded, "I did not interrupt God... He was not speaking!... but you can not start the meeting and then make our only choice to leave or listen to a prayer to your god."
Trustee Ralph James wrote to Ms. Lewis, "We have the right to pray in meetings, and I will fight to keep that right with whatever it takes."
Superintendent Dr. John Fuller offered to discuss the concept of separation of church and state with Ms. Lewis, but so far no meeting has taken place. Later he said, "Wylie ISD is a faith-based community.", adding, "I believe the public schools should neither inoculate nor inhibit religion."
At a later meeting of the school board, it was reported that members of the audience loudly repeated, like a football cheer, "in Jesus name we pray" after the invocation.
This seems to this Wylie resident a great time for a liberal dose of the welcoming brand of southern hospitality.
As our communities become more diverse, our governments need to become more welcoming and accepting. Collin County is no longer in the 19th century - our taxpayers come from all cultures and beliefs. Can we not ask for divine guidance in a manner not calculated to exclude anyone not Christian?
It would seem a simple matter to craft a prayer to heaven asking for wisdom and compassion.
In her last email to Dr. Fuller, Ms. Lewis wrote, "I think there are a few ways we can negotiate a common ground where we offend no one."
I hope the majority can find it in their hearts to express the same sentiments.
Prayer clash continues in Wylie school district - Dallas Morning News August 19, 2008
Prayer, interrupted - The Wylie News, August 13, 2008
Ed Housewright: Plano church keeps faith in fight to use building
By Ed Housewright / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Members of the Plano Vietnamese Baptist Church accomplished an amazing feat recently. Some might call it a miracle.
The 15 families that make up the church raised $415,000 to purchase their first building – with cash.
Some people dug deep into their savings. Others took out home equity loans, said Pastor Thomas Le.
But now the members can't worship in the 50-year-old building near downtown, thanks to an obscure city regulation.
A Plano ordinance passed in 1971 requires churches to sit on at least 2 acres. The Vietnamese Baptist church has 1.2 acres.
While the most recent owners used it for other purposes, the structure at Avenue G and 17th Street was built as a church and looks like a church.
The Board of Adjustment, appointed by the City Council, went against a city staff recommendation and voted 4-1 in April to deny an exception to the policy.
The board majority, apparently, was swayed by six residents who complained the church would increase noise and traffic.
Nine years ago a young catholic priest sent his photo to a website that claimed to be a support for gay priests who wanted to remain celibate.
Almost a decade later, the Inquisitor of Dallas, Rod Dreher, (who when not torching heretics, moonlights as a columnist for the Dallas Morning News) broke the story that had been posted in right-wing catholic blogs for days - that same priest had been appointed pastor at St. Michael's Catholic Church in McKinney.
No one offered any evidence or even rumor suggesting that Father Mallinson had ever done anything to suggest he was actively gay. No one has claimed to be a victim. No one has claimed to have read anything written by Father Mallinson that was heretical or obscene. No one has offered a shred of evidence that this priest has ever done anything at all overtly homosexual.
Evidence that he has been a good pastor seem easy to find. Many of his former parishioners in Lancaster are supporting him. They have even started a petition to the diocese in his defense.
Yet Father Mallinson was condemned because nine years ago he sent his picture to a website that became (he says later became) very pornographic. Dreher regaled in posting links to lurid web pages, yet offered no evidence of Father Mallinson's involvement with it other than the single (chaste) photograph.
Today, Father Mallinson resigned from St. Michael's parish. He is being run out of Collin County by 21st century pharisees who can't tell the difference between pedophilia and homosexuality.
In his blog posting on Father Mallinson, Dreher wrote, "Me, I believe in forgiveness, but I honestly don't understand how a priest can function effectively as a spiritual leader after his involvement in something like this has been made public."
I write, "Me I believe in forgiveness, and I believe that Christ's message was one of compassion and redemption. I can easily see how a priest can make a mistake a decade ago and function as an effective spiritual leader - just like Paul and Loyola and Augustine and Magdalene and Mary of Egypt and countless other saints of the church."
And I ask Rod Dreher and the other self righteous catholic bloggers, "Did you ask Father Mallinson about what he did in 1999, or did you rush to condemn in haste and prejudice?"