Watchdog group takes Central Heights ISD to task for Christian movies shown to students

Watchdog group takes Central Heights ISD to task for Christian movies shown to students

CENTRAL HEIGHTS, TX (KTRE) - Following a complaint by a Central Heights ISD student, Freedom from Religion Foundation got assurances from the school district's law firm that, in the future, CISD's faculty and staff have been and will continue to be trained on First Amendment issues regarding the separation of church and state earlier this week.

The student's complaint alleged that one teacher showed the Christian movie, "God's Not Dead," to his ninth-grade health class in the spring of 2015 and other another showed a documentary about the theory of intelligent design to a ninth-grade biology class.

"We are glad the district is going to enforce its policies and stop miseducating its captive audience," Annie Laurie Gaylor, the FFRF's co-president, said in a press release. "However, the onus shouldn't be on us to remind school districts about their constitutional obligations."

According to the press release, the FFRF, a religious watchdog group based in Wisconsin, contacted the Central Heights Independent School District back in May about the allegations.

East Texas News reached out to Central Heights ISD Superintendent Bryan Lee for comments about the situation.

"We will continue to train our teachers as we have in the past and make sure they understand the policies and procedures," Lee said Wednesday.

"In Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, two teachers showed their students extremely questionable films," the FFRF press release stated. "In a ninth grade health class, an instructor screened 'God's Not Dead,' a movie blatantly Christian and proselytizing in nature."

The press release also stated that the second teacher told his students that didn't believe in theory of evolution before he showed his class a documentary titled, "Expelled: Intelligence Not Required."

In the press release, the documentary was described as "an intelligent design propaganda work that the New York Times described as a 'conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.'"

In a letter Sam Grover, a staff attorney for the FFRF, wrote to Lee, he said that intelligent design is a religious belief, "not a legitimate scientific theory."
"The district has a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint," Grover wrote in the letter.

In his letter to Central Heights ISD, Grover also cited a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the separation of church and state principle.

Lee responded with a letter of his own. In the letter, he cited the district's instructional policies handbook. It says that teachers are required to address "controversial topics in an impartial and objective manner," and that they should discuss potentially controversial topics with their campus principals if they are unsure about the subject matter.

The Central Heights ISD superintendent also pointed out that the district has a policy in place that allows a parent to remove his or her child from any instructional activity that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs.

In his letter, Lee said the district investigated the allegations and learned that the ninth-grade health teacher showed "God's Not Dead" on a STAAR testing day. He said the class had some "down time" after they completed the test and added that the teacher told district officials that he told his students they could opt out of watching the movie and gave them a list of alternative things to do if they felt uncomfortable watching "God's Not Dead."

"At no point did any student object to the film or express discomfort with the material," Lee wrote in his letter.

Lee went on to say that the ninth-grade biology teacher also gave his students the option of not watching the documentary or taking part in the "corresponding instructional activity prior to the lesson."

"It is our understanding that [the teacher] intended this to be an exercise in exploring other ideas in the realm of science," Lee wrote in the letter. "Because the concept may be viewed as controversial to some, [the teacher] fully explained the topic of the lesson and gave students an alternative before beginning."
Lee wrote that as a result of the district's investigation, they found that both teacher's actions were in compliance with Central Heights ISD policies.

"Nonetheless, we will continue to evaluate policy to ensure that all CHISD students feel comfortable in all student lessons and activities, including the possibility of written parental permission and prior supervisor approval," Lee wrote in his letter.

Grover sent the district's law firm a rebuttal letter in June. In the letter, he argued that the two movies shown to the Central Heights ISD students "have no educational merit."

"[The teacher's} choice to show the movie 'God's Not Dead" cannot be justified by any legitimate reference to the curriculum," Grover wrote. "The movie is unabashedly evangelical and has no educational merit. Even though it was shown during a 'reprieve from the rigors of testing,' [the teacher] was still acting in his official capacity as a district employee, and he was not exempt from is constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion."

Grover made a similar argument regarding the teacher's decision to show "Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed."

"As mentioned in our previous letter, it is well-settled legally that creationism and intelligent design are not 'ideas from the realm of science,'" Grover wrote in the letter. "They are religious ideas that have no scientific support and no educational merit within the context of a biology class."

Karczewski and Bradshaw, Central Heights ISD's law firm, sent a response letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Tuesday.

"We write in response to your letter dated June 16, 2016, and confirm, as requested, that the Central Heights Independent School District staff have been and will continue to be trained on Establishment Cause issues," attorney Kelli Karczewski said in her letter.

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