BOE delves into ‘Billy Graham Day’

The deceptively simple creation of ‘Billy Graham Day’ last month has ballooned into a worrisome problem for those who sit on the Claiborne School Board.

If the day is allowed to stand, the county could be facing litigation because of a 1988 federal lawsuit halting the school approved “Bible Lady” visits – effectively mandating the end of all school sponsored religiously-based events.

The board first addressed the problem during its March committee meeting, where county attorney James Estep III explained the illegalities.

He recommended that the Billy Graham Day proclamation be rescinded.

“We are operating under a federal court order, prohibiting proselytizing religion. The action that was taken, in my opinion, violates that order….We’re subject to litigation, damages if we allow that to occur,” said Estep, during that committee meeting.

The ultimate $30,000 payout in damages in the Bible Lady lawsuit, Estep said, would in today’s economy cost the county about $200,000.

A piece of legislation signed in the late 1990s by then-president Bill Clinton prompted Claiborne County to enter into agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The agreement called for the sanctioning of ‘release time’ for those wanting to attend activities of a religious nature.

“It’s still not at the point that we can have a specific holiday event in school, where there are students and teachers organized in allowing this activity to occur,” said Estep, during the committee meeting.

Board member Justin Cosby, who had initially proposed Billy Graham Day, said during the full board meeting that he had been in contact with four attorneys.

“They basically said, as long as we’re not enforcing a religion, if we are just recognizing him – teaching about him through the historical lens – that would be acceptable,” said Cosby.

He recited information from the Tennessee Education Association.

“Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world. Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life is insignificant or unimportant. Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices and concepts of various religions may exempt much of history, literature, art and contemporary life,” said Cosby.

Estep reiterated that all school administration and personnel are required to remain “neutral” and avoid soliciting, encouraging and participating in religious activity.

Board member Shane Bunch asked whether an atheist or agnostic could be recognized within the school setting.

Estep said it could not be done due to the religious aspect attached to that person.

“You can recognize. You can’t have a school-sponsored event. When you start directing the schools to follow it – that’s where you get into the problem,” said Estep.

He repeated his earlier statement that students could be given ‘release time’ to voluntarily attend an outside organizational event of a religious nature.

Board vice-chair Shannon England said allowing Billy Graham Day could set a precedent.

“If we allow this, the next board that’s elected – let’s say they’re not Christians, and they say ‘we want to have Muhammad Day.’ What can we do if we say this is OK? Can we say that’s not,” said England.

Estep said allowing a Muhammad Day would also violate the separation of church and state. Allowing Billy Graham Day to stand would establish the necessary precedent for a possible Muhammad Day, he said.

“They could point to that and could probably be successful in litigation,” said Estep.

He added that there is a very fine line between deeming an individual an historical figure as opposed to a religious one.

After more debate, board member Wade Breeding made the motion to table the matter until the May meeting.

In other action Josh McNeil, account executive with ESG (Energy Systems Group), updated the board on his company’s project to bring cheaper electricity to the school system.

The $3 million, ‘budget neutral’ program will allow upgrades in the lighting and weatherization at all campuses, plus the Central Office. Outside lighting will also be reworked.

Three campuses will have upgrades to their HVAC systems and their ceilings will be dropped, for better energy efficiency. Massive electrical upgrades will be completed, including the rewiring of old switches by installing dual bi-level switching in the older schools, he said.

The project is contingent upon approval of the financial contract with EESI (Environmental and Energy Study Institute), the nonprofit organization that is expected to loan the funds to cover the project.

Approval of the ESG contract will allow the county to access several TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) energy incentive programs.

According to McNeil, the upgrades completed by ESG should allow the school system to realize $3.5 million in energy savings.