The Christian rock concert and rally at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson two months ago has the Chesterfield County School District answering to accusations of having violated constitutional principles separating church and state. David Huff, the lawyer representing the school district, had little to offer in the form of documentation in his official response to the demands of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
Having learned of the event through a video posted on the Internet, the ACLU and the FFRF exercised their rights under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain records from the district relating to the middle school event, as well as district policies regarding religion.
The school district was asked to present “documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body,” to the ACLU.
The Cheraw Chronicle first reported about the religious rally in a front page story published Thursday, Sept. 29.
Duff’s response for documentation to Susan Dunn, director of the South Carolina Chapter of the ACLU, did not include a copy of the video that prompted the inquiry and national attention. “Although I do not believe this constitutes public records of the district, I am informed that video tapes of the event were made available for parents to purchase following the Sept. 1, PTO meeting. The school does not have a copy of the video tape,” wrote Duff.
Community and parental support of Principal Larry Stinson’s decision to allow the Christian singer and evangelist speaker Christian Chapman to perform during school hours was evident at last month’s meeting of the Chesterfield County School Board. Although no one spoke on Stinson’s behalf, the spacious boardroom was crowded with people wearing bright red New Heights Middle School shirts. There was standing room only, inside and outside the newly renovated boardroom, formerly used as the cafeteria at the old Edwards Elementary School in Chesterfield.
There were 14 specific requests for public records from the school district, categorized as II 1-14, in the ACLU’s formal FOIA request.
Duff’s response to II 1: “As you are aware, an event featuring Brian Edmonds, also known as B-Shoc, and the evangelical minister, Christian Chapman, occurred at New Heights Middle School on September 1, 2011. While apparently there were fliers and other written materials referring or relating to that event before it occurred, none of those documents were retained after the event took place.”
Duff’s response to the ACLU, delivered Oct. 13, continues: “In addition, although I again question whether the article is a district record, a student, Amber Moser, wrote a proposed article concerning the September 1 B-SHOC event for the school newspaper, the Hawks Nest. The Hawks Nest has not been printed and will not be prepared until shortly before October 27, when copies are distributed with report cards. I am enclosing a copy of the text of the potential article.”
So far, the Chronicle has been unable to obtain a copy of the school’s printed newspaper. The current website for New Heights Middle School, which posts current news and events, makes no mention of Moser’s article.
“Somehow,” Duff wrote, “the text of the article was obtained by a staff writer, Karen Kissiah, for the newspaper the Cheraw Chronicle, and was quoted in part by Ms. Kissiah in a Chronicle story that ran in the September 28 edition of the paper.”
The Chronicle obtained Moser’s article, referred to as potential, from a copy of the packet of information sent via U.S. mail and electronic mail Sept. 19, 2011, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to email@example.com (the email address of Superintendent John Williams). The article was titled Christian Chapman and B-SHOC visit NHMS by Amber Mosser, Hawk News Team Correspondent.
“The only other document that may be responsive to this request is an email received by the principal, Larry Stinson, from Kathleen Flick, dated Sept. 30,” Duff wrote in his response. “Stinson states that there were other emails he received concerning the B-SHOC event, both favorable and unfavorable, which he did not retain, as apparently is his customary practice regarding emails once they are read.”
Duff also said Stinson “retained Ms. Flick’s Sept. 30 email because prior to Sept. 30, Dr. Williams advised him to save all emails relating to these matters.”
In regard to inquiries of subsequent events featuring B-SHOC, listed on the school district’s calendar of events for McBee and Central High schools in October, Duff submitted copies of rental agreements by organizations not affiliated with the public school system.
Duff’s response to II (2): “There are no written agreements per se related to past or scheduled B-SHOC events; the only existing relevant documents are the applications referred to in II (1).
There were no “existing documents” submitted for II (3).
Duff’s response to II (4) reads: “I am advised that students were permitted to pick up written materials apparently provided by the performers following the Sept. 1, program at New Heights Middle School. I question whether such materials are district records; however, in any event, these materials are not in the possession of the school.”
Request II (5) called for the district to submit any video documentation available. “No such videos are in the possession of the school,” Duff said.
The one email, sent from Flick to Stinson, was documented for item II (6). The subject of the email reads: “You guys are famous on Youtube.”
“I will not debate the advisability of your students believing in Christianity,” Flick said, “because it is of minor importance compared to the terrible disservice you have done to those students. Why? It costs money to defend against, and even answer the ACLU. This is money that could be better spent on the students’ education, building maintenance, etc.”
Directing her comment to Stinson, who has been quoted as saying he didn’t care what happened to him as a consequence of bringing a religious event to a public school, Flick also said, “Martyr yourself (i.e. your professional future) if you like. Don’t force the students’ future to be martyred for your personal cause. Shame on you.”
The Chronicle has attempted, without success, to find out who Flick is and whether or not she has any connection to Chesterfield County.
Items II (7) through II (11) offered no response or referred to documentations already submitted. Items II (12 and 13) called for copies of district policies regarding religion, which were sent.
A portion of Chesterfield County School District policy concerning religion, issued in November of 1999, reads: “Neither the district or its employees will promote or disparage any religious belief or non-belief. Instead, the district will encourage all students and staff members to appreciate and tolerate each other’s religious views.”
Having recently received the school district’s response, Victoria Middleton, executive director for the South Carolina Chapter of the ACLU said Monday, “We are considering our next steps.”