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Atheists demand school censor teachers' private speech

The atheist activist group Freedom from Religion Foundation is demanding that a school district in Texas censor private comments made by its teachers in their off hours.

The non-profit First Liberty, however, is advising the district “to simply ignore this unfounded complaint and recommit Greenville ISD to the protection of the private speech of the citizens it serves.”

The atheist group was reacting to two school employees, Chip Gregory and principal Dale Mason, appearing in a video endorsing a Christian organization called The Men and Ladies of Honor.

FFRF condemned “unconstitutional religious promotion” by school employees.

“We write to ensure that the district ends all such unconstitutional practices and brings the Men and Ladies of Honor groups into compliance,” FFRF threatened in a letter.

First Liberty, which defends constitutionally protected religious rights suggested a simple response: Ignore FFRF.

“Opponents of religious liberty are trying to censor religious expression and prevent private citizens from exercising their religious beliefs outside of school,” said Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel to First Liberty Institute.

“Public school employees are absolutely free to exercise their religious liberty rights outside of school. If school officials receive an angry letter from activists with such baseless legal claims, they should just ignore them,” he said.

First Liberty explained that in their free time, Gregory and Mason volunteer in Men of Honor and Ladies of Honor programs.

“Recently, the two appeared for less than two minutes in a much longer promotional video produced by a private organization and published by a private citizen on a website over which Greeneville ISD has no control.”

First Liberty explained FFRF was demanding the school district investigate, “take down the privately produced video (from a private website they do not control), and instruct Gregory and Mason to stop participating with this private organization.”

The team argued that in “their free time, away from school and school events, school employees are free to involve themselves in religious activities.”

The letter explained: “Given the prominence of the private organization’s logo before and after the video, along with the description of its work throughout, the posting of it by a private individual to Facebook and YouTube, and the use of personal pronouns by Gregory and Mason, no reasonable person would review the video and possibly conclude that this privately produced video is the speech of Greenville ISD.”

First Liberty contended it is “private speech subject to the full protection of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Further, if the district were to submit to FFRF’s demand, it could be sued.

“In fact, the school district should do nothing. If Greenville ISD were to take any action to discipline either gentleman or to remove the video from private distribution, it would likely constitute unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and subject the school board to suit.”

Such actions could be considered “hostility” to religion, which is unconstitutional, First Liberty explained.