It was November 12th. His wife was on the phone and she was reading an email that she had just received from her boss at Sallie Zetterower Elementary School in Statesboro, Ga.
“As of today, if you have a Bible verse on your school email and/or Bible verse posted in the classroom, please remove it immediately,” the email read.
But it was the next part of the email that made Mr. Cook tremble.
“If a student-led prayer is initiated, you must remove yourself and step away from the group,” the email read.
Mr. Cook told me in a telephone interview that he was dumbfounded.
“They have to physically turn their backs on that prayer - walk away from the prayer,” he said. “That just completely oversteps so many lines.”
So Mr. Cook started “Bulloch County Citizens for Religious Liberties, a grassroots gathering of local residents who want to stop the erosion of religious liberties in their community.
“For me, this is not so much a matter of Christianity as it is a matter of civil liberty,” he told me. “I fear that if more of us do not stand firm against the progressive cancer of political correctness that is eating away at our society, we may not have much time left before we lose all individual liberty.”
Jeremy Dys, an attorney for Liberty Institute, a legal firm that handles religious liberty cases, is in Statesboro and is expected to address the Board of Education about the controversy tonight.
“The Bulloch County Board of Education has created a hostile environment toward religious liberty in general,” Dys told me. “It’s not religion that’s being driven out of the schools. It’s one single religion – Christianity.”
The Bulloch County Board of Education edict demanding teachers cleanse Christianity from their classrooms comes amid a season of religious turmoil in the community.
In April, Americans United For Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the school district over prayers at school events as well as teachers participating in the prayers.
According to the email Mr. Cook’s wife received, that complaint led to the district-wide crackdown on the Christian faith.
“Teachers are told if you’re going to work here, you’re going to have to check your rights at the door,” he said. “The Board of Education has overstepped its bounds and implemented things they don’t have the authority to do - especially when it comes to matters of private expression.”
Robb Kicklighter said his wife experienced that attitude first hand after she was told to remove a Bible verse screen saver on her school computer. She’s a third grade teacher at Brooklet Elementary School.
Sometimes the screen saver would pop up on the classroom’s smart board - making it viewable by the students.
“She was asked to remove it because it was disrupting the classroom and it could offend someone,” Mr. Kicklighter told me. “No formal complaint was made but my wife took it off because her boss told her to. Had she decided to leave it, she could have been fired.”
He told me another teacher in the school was told to stop listening to Christian music in the classroom. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader was called into the office and told to remove Bible verses that appeared on the club’s bulletin board.
“You are seeing teachers who are scared -- that they are going to lose their job,” Mr. Kicklighter told me. “This is wrong.”
He also said a display featuring Christmas cards made by teachers at the school was removed from the hallway. It was relocated to a room where children could not see the cards.
The Board of Education dismissed the concerns of teachers in a statement released to the public by Supt. Charles Wilson.
“The Bulloch County Board of Education has not changed or adopted any policies prohibiting the rights of school system employees to practice their constitutional rights of religious expression,” he wrote. “However, there has been a recent reminder from me to school principals about established legal requirements to which we must adhere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, address these rights and restrictions.
The accusation that the Christmas card display was removed touched a nerve with the Board of Education. I had written about the removal several days ago and the superintendent took me to task for my story.
“I’m appalled by this attack on our school system,” Wilson wrote in a statement that appeared on the district’s website. “The display being moved had absolutely nothing to do with the current open and ongoing discussions that the school system is having with local citizens about religious liberties and expression.”
The superintendent said the Christmas card display was removed because of a “legitimate, personal privacy concern raised by one of the school’s staff members.”
If the staff member was so concerned about privacy, why did they voluntarily post their card in a public school hallway?
Attorney Dys said they are investigating the Christmas card incident as well.
“It’s clear to me that the Board of Education has required that to be removed from a public place and put in a private place,” he said. “The reason that it was moved is still very unclear.”
The superintendent went so far as to accuse me of terrorizing the school.
“Brooklet Elementary was terrorized by an intentional and vicious dissemination of untrue information that disrupted the good work going on inside,” read a statement posted on the district’s website.
It seems to me the only people being terrorized in Bulloch County are Christian school teachers who’ve been told to cleanse their classrooms of religion and leave their beliefs outside the schoolhouse door.