An elementary school class in South Mississippi did not receive a planned class activity featuring religious content after a national organization warned the Covington County School District that it could violate the separation of church and state.

Officials from the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the district after a Seminary Elementary School parent informed them of a planned first-grade activity that they believed contained religious content. The reported activity was a coloring page of an Easter egg split into six sections where each was assigned a different color with a religious meaning. The assignment was scheduled for March 28, FFRF said.

In its letter to the district, the organization cited several cases where courts found that public schools may not show favoritism or endorse any particular religion. FFRF is a national organization that says it is focused on protecting the separation of church and state and educating the public about nontheism.

“Using a religious holiday, Easter, as a pretext to teach religious lessons in a public school is unconstitutional,” FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote in a March 27 letter to Covington County School District Superintendent Babette Duty.

Zeigler would not comment on how the parent learned about the planned activity but said that the parent reported “frequently having to counteract religion that their child was fed in school.”

“Many of our complainants are very concerned about the harassment and the backlash that might fall on them if it were to be released,” Ziegler told the Crirec on June 26. “So I don’t want to go into any details that they haven’t explicitly said that it was OK to discuss.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler requested that the Covington County School District stop a planned assignment with religious content to “ensure that its teachers at Seminary Elementary and all other schools understand their constitutional duty to respect the religious rights of students.” Photo courtesy Freedom From Religion Foundation

Ziegler said that allowing students to opt out of the assignment was not enough to alleviate the constitutional concern because it forced non-Christian students and families “to either out themselves as non-believers or comply.” The letter asked the district to respond in writing the steps the district would take to correct the “serious constitutional violation.”

“It’s important because not all students share the same religion and the Constitution protects the government from imposing religion on students for the protection of those students so that they are not being told what to believe about religion in their public school,” Ziegler said. “And it’s important to prevent assignments that promote one religion as this one did from being assigned so that students who do not share those beliefs don’t get excluded.”

Duty responded that the assignment was never distributed.

“The activity was never put in front of any student,” the superintendent wrote in a May 31 letter to the FFRF. “The principal has been briefed and in turn shared with her staff the requirements of the Establishment Clause and their responsibilities as employees in a public school in regard to the law.”

In response to a request for comment, Superintendent Babette Duty said in an email on June 17 that she was retiring on June 28. Calls and emails to the district’s public relations department were not returned by press time.

Efforts to introduce religion into public school classrooms have met resistance in recent months, including a new Louisiana law requiring public schools to publicly display a Christian version of the Ten Commandments and the Oklahoma state superintendent's recent order requiring public schools to teach the Bible.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.

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