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Can a teacher put John 3:16 in email signature? District says no; her lawyers say yes

An official of a Virginia school district said its ‘determination is not based on any particular religious viewpoint.’

Loudoun County Public Schools. Courtesy of LCPS

(RNS) — Attorneys for a Virginia high school teacher are challenging school officials for requiring the teacher to remove a Bible verse from the signature of her work email messages.

Until the recent directive, the teacher had for years, since the time she was hired by the district, included John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” — with her signature.

In their request made last month, lawyers with the Christian legal group Liberty Counsel said the Loudoun County Public Schools directive amounts to religious and viewpoint discrimination. They said her colleagues are permitted to include other kinds of private expression from secular viewpoints in email messages, including the use of preferred pronouns.

“The District does not prohibit all personal expression by teachers in their email signature blocks; but only religious expression, because it says the Establishment Clause precludes the school district ‘from any communication that could be perceived as the school division’s official endorsement of any particular religion,’” the lawyers said in a letter to the district.

“Yet this endorsement/reasonable observer test was explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in its Kennedy decision.”

In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case, the high court decided, 6-3, in June that it was constitutional for a high school football coach to pray on the field after football games and be joined by students in the prayer.

Liberty Counsel also cited a unanimous Supreme Court decision last year, Shurtleff v. Boston, that the city unconstitutionally refused a conservative activist’s request to fly a Christian flag on a City Hall flagpole to mark Constitution Day when hundreds of other requests to fly flags of different types had been approved.

“Upholding a teacher’s private speech in the workplace is not state endorsement of any religious message the teacher may choose to convey,” the lawyers said in their request. “It is instead a rightful protection of that teacher’s fundamental free exercise rights.”

They also cited the Supreme Court’s decadeslong position that teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In response to the Liberty Counsel letter, Acting Superintendent Daniel W. Smith said occasional use of the district’s email address for personal reasons is permitted if it does not interfere with a teacher’s responsibilities to the district.

But Smith said his understanding was that the teacher “is not including religious quotes in only her private correspondence, but also uses these religious quotes in her communications to students and their parents in her capacity as an LCPS employee. These communications are not private expression, but rather constitute school-sponsored speech bearing the ostensible endorsement of the School Division particularly when such emails reflect the ‘lcps.org’ email domain.”

Smith reiterated that the district’s stance concerns avoiding a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which bars government from favoring one religion over another.

“To be clear, LCPS’s determination is not based on any particular religious viewpoint,” he added, “and LCPS would take a consistent approach as it has here with respect to any religious expression incorporated in an LCPS employee’s email signature block of which it becomes aware.”

The American Family Association stated Monday (April 10) that it considers the district’s position to be unfair censorship.

“The hostility of the secular left towards the Christian faith is chilling and clearly indicates where so-called ‘progressives’ want to take our nation,” said Ed Vitagliano, executive vice president of the conservative organization. “They want to drive our faith into the shadows and punish any and all public expression of it.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State told Religion News Service that the district’s stance is appropriate.

“A teacher’s work emails are official governmental communications and, therefore, cannot legally contain religious content,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of the Washington-based organization.

“As is customary for them, Liberty Counsel is taking court cases out of context in order to distort the First Amendment to remove the separation of church and state. Loudoun County Public Schools has a duty to ensure that school officials are not abusing school resources to impose their personal religion on others, and that includes official emails sent from official school district email accounts.”

Lawyers for the teacher said she proposed an alternative verse from Proverbs — “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” They said it was also rejected because it was from the Bible.

By Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

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