Church/State Separation Group Delivers Gift Basket to School Board Staff Under Fire

The Kountze Independent School District has been under fire for their decision to stop cheerleaders from holding run-through banners at football games with Bible verses on them after receiving complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (A judge has overruled the superintendent, allowing the Bible banners temporarily. Last we heard, the Texas Attorney General was lending his support to the district.)

In similar cases like this, the church/state separation groups would be demonized and our side would just accept it: We’re right, the law’s on our side, so why try to be nice about it?

But Kacy Ellis and the Concerned East Texans for Separation of Church and State wanted to thank the school district for doing the right thing. They sent the school board staff a gift basket filled with coffee, tea, chocolate, a gift card to Chili’s, and the following thank you card:

Dear Superintendent Kevin Weldon and K.I.S.D. Administrative Staff,

Please accept this basket as token of our sincere appreciation for your commitment to the First Amendment and a free, diverse, and tolerant society. We recognize the professional and personal risks you have taken to ensure that every student feels like a welcome part of the school community, regardless of their faith or non-faith. We want you to know that your efforts and sacrifices have not gone unnoticed.

With Sincerest Thanks,

Concerned East Texans for Separation of Church and State

They’re even getting news coverage for it :)

Rayma Smith (left) and Kacy Ellis hold the gift basket their group delivered to the Kountze school board.

Slow news day? Maybe. But who cares. It’s a really nice gesture to the school board — one that stands out amidst the nasty messages they’re probably getting from Christians who don’t understand that public schools and their churches aren’t one and the same.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • ortcutt

    I’d rather that people not be giving gifts to government officials and I hope that the school district has a policy against receiving such gifts.

    • ZenDruid

       Come on. A gift basket is the equivalent of a thank-you note. On the other hand, a briefcase full of cash or a new SUV or expensive jewelry belong to the category of ‘gifts’ (bribes) that should indeed be scrutinized.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin

    As much as I agree that “we” should be nicer about it, this does open the door to accusations of bribery.

    It’s one thing to make public a letter or note of thanks and appreciation, it’s another thing to send gifts for, ya know, voting the right way, wink wink.

    • C Peterson

      If this is a school board that can actually be bribed by a few packets of coffee and tea and a box of chocolates, the district is in serious trouble. Not to mention that bribes generally occur before a vote, not after… and gifts to an entire board don’t just reward those who voted in a certain way.

      (I’m on a school board, and we have a clear written policy about this, which limits gifts to occasional, nonpecuniary, and of insignificant value, and which requires that any gifts be disclosed.)

    • http://exconvert.blogspot.com/ Kacy

       The gift wasn’t to the school board.  It was to the people working in the offices.  These people were receiving nasty phone calls last week after news broke on the story.  Divided among the office, the cost came to $20 per person in coffee, tea, chocolates, and 1 lunch at Chilis.  It fits in with the gift giving regulations, as mentioned below. 

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

        Good, then.  And those are the people that tend to be underappreciated, so a gift to them is especially thoughtful.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

        I made edits to reflect this. Sorry for the confusion!

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      I’d rather be accused of bribery than threats.

  • Hmmmmm

    I don’t know. Why should someone get a gift for doing what they are supposed to do?

    • Anonymous Atheist

      Because it is still unusual for someone to do what they are supposed to do in situations like this, in the face of tens of thousands of angry Christianists, without being forced to in court.

      • Hmmmmm

        Still not a good reason.

        Seriously. We need to start just accepting proper behavior as just that. Stop giving little tidbits and rewards for doing what is supposed to be done in the first place.

        I understand where you are coming from, but this is akin to rewarding someone for saying “please” and “thank you”. It should be something that is not even thought of, and I do feel that by rewarding the behavior that is to be the norm, we indirectly add to the air of idiocy.

    • Martin

      To counteract the threats they receive for doing what they are supposed to do.  We wouldn’t have to resort to providing gifts for people doing their jobs if there wasn’t such a huge majority basically spitting on them for doing their job.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    It’s a nice gesture.  But I also am uneasy with the possible overtones of bribery.  At what level does a gift stop being a simple “Thank you” and start being unethical?

    The Chili’s gift card makes me the uneasiest.  I don’t think a snack that the school board can share at a meeting is too out of line, but a gift card is too close to being a monetary gift.  I hope that the school board will keep the thank-you note and graciously decline the rest.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Gift limits to public employees are defined by state laws. Summaries of them all are available at 
    http://edseminars.apple.com/ethics/Education_Ethics_and_Compliance/Ethics_and_Gift_Law_Summaries___K12_Public_Institutions.html
    It says Texas allows items worth up to $50, and “benefits in the form of food, lodging, transportation, or entertainment if the donor is present”.

  • Gary B

    I don’t think I’ve seen anyone bring this up yet, so now seems a good a time as any.  Here are quotes from Superintendent Weldon:

     “I’m proud of what they’ve [the students] done and what they stand for, but on the
    flip side I have to do legally what’s advised of me to do by legal
    counsel.”

    “I’ve spoken to several people on the phone, once I tell them this
    wasn’t my personal decision, that this was given to me as a
    representative of the district, people are a little more understanding.”

    I realize he is in an extremely tough situation, but in this matter he doesn’t really come across as someone concerned about ensuring “that every student feels like a welcome part of the school community”, as the women say in their note.  I’d consider him much more worthy of praise if this was the message he was sending, rather than the one of “hey, I’m with you Christians, but my hands are tied”.

  • Joe Zamecki

    At the very least, I really think the schools need to educate students better about state/church separation, and clearly explain why the banners are wrong. It’s so jarring to figure that all of those students think that only Christians go to that school, or that only Christians are welcome there, or that only Christians accomplish anything there. Or whatever line of reasoning they have, to justify representing the school that way. They need to hear that religious anarchy is not an acceptable part of free expression, especially when you’re speaking for others as well as yourself. “Speak for yourself,” I’d like to say to them.  Those banners are definitely NOT about individual expression. It’s a group message. 

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

    Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson rolls in his grave…

    • Martin

      Because someone finally upheld the Constitution he helped write without having the courts demand them to uphold it?  I am confused.

      • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

        Your confusion might stem from the fact that you apparently define “uphold the Constitution” as “denying US citizens the right to express their religious beliefs at a school football game,” as if that somehow constitutes a violation of separation. I don’t define it that way, and Jefferson’s actions while in office suggest that he didn’t, either. Take a look if you don’t believe me…

        • Martin

          Oh I understand your confusion on the situation now.  US Citizens do have the right to express their religious beliefs at a school football game, just not under an official school capacity.  No one officially complained the next game when fans throughout the stadium held up signs neither did they complain ever about that as it is and was commonplace before that. 
          The cheerleaders are acting under official school capacity, and therefore negate their role as “US citizen” for the duration of their post to “Official government representative”.  Once they end their post, they can hold up whatever sign they wish.

          • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

            Like I said, you interpret “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” to mean, “cheerleaders can’t have signs expressing their faith,” and you do so with no good reason whatsoever. Hence, my Jefferson in his grave remark. Atheists like yourself have taken a safeguard against religious tyranny and turned it into something it wasn’t meant to be. 

            We may as well just agree to disagree and leave it at that.

            • Gary B

               Jefferson would probably disapprove, but so what?  Our society and government have progressed since his time to be more inclusive and respectful of all our citizens.   A school should  create an environment of inclusiveness.  It’s just the right thing to do in today’s society.  Representatives of the school showing preference for one religion goes completely against that ideal.  There is your good reason.

            • Martin

              I gave you the reason you just ignored it. The Cheerleaders are acting as a government official during their presentation at the game, and holding a sign with a religious message would be respecting an establishment of religion.  Cheerleaders can have all the signs they want expressing their faith when they are not acting in this position.  

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              Actually, the various Supreme Courts have interpreted.  This particular case is widely considered to be very similar to Santa Fe v. Doe, which was brought by Catholics and Mormons.

              Nice try trying to make Church/State separation an atheist only issue though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    Even if this were legal it is still incredibly obnoxious. I can’t even go to a school football game without being proselytized to?

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Some more news from the other side:  
    “RALLY to Support Kountze Kids Faith Oct 5th Home Football Game 7:30pm” http://www.facebook.com/events/105912862899560/

    David Bellow, Sep 27: ” Great News! Today I sent a letter to EVERY house in Kountze ISD (about 3000 houses) encouraging the Kountze kids and encouraging everyone in Kountze to show up to the Oct 5th game to show support for the kids standing up for their faith! The flyer also invites residents of Kountze to a free showing of the new movie “Last Ounce of Courage” which is a movie about a father who stands for his faith and the Constitution. This Rally is gonna be AWESOME! The stadium will be packed! “

    • Anonymous Atheist

      A few good comments I saw posted there:

      ” Worse than what these Kountze kids are doing is what these parents and other adults are doing under the term “supporting” them..they are encourageing them in what is both unglodly, un-Christian, and to act like a gang of bullies. This is a public school, not a private religious church run school! Any child there that doesn’t feel a part of this, whether as a Christian that objects to this kind of public display of religious-based belligerance, or from a athiest or other religious background, has to be feeling very intimidated and frightened at all this. And what does this display of God being on Kountze’s ‘side’ say of/to the kids, parents, families, school personnel, connected to that OTHER school’s team that will be playing this or any other game, “against” Kountze kids? Disgusting, and ungodly, and I AM a Christian that sees this as anything but Christian behavior. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 7:52pm” Jenell, and that it is probably why this person who made this complaint wishes to remain anonymous.I went to Lumberton High in the 90′s and even though I was mercilessly bullied or hated on from junior high until I moved away because everyone though I was a homosexual or because I hung out with the “skater kids” and therefore did drugs.I’ve never done drugs, and neither did most of my friends, but we all got the same treatment. I know lots of people in Lumberton who have stopped going to church simply because of this kind of attitude and it is really sad. “- Brett Walker, Sunday at 8:14pm” i can fully understand, Brett. I have very painful memories from as a child, when Christian religious bullying was not yet being legally addressed in public schools (I’m 63)….my family was Christian, but my mother had discovered the pagan origins of christmass, and we did not celebrate it, and I wasn’t allowed to participate in Christmass holidat activites at school. Me, a few others that included JW’s, Jewish, etc, would be shunted off aside while holiday things like decorating, parties, etc went on, which itself hurt, feeling excluded. but the bullying, the taunts, being called athiests, devil worshippers, told we didn’t beleive in god, in hateful tones, and yes, even some physical assaults, being spit on, having mud smeared on our clothes, pushed around on the playground…by those so-called christian kids, while even teachers looked on without helping us. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 8:21pm” Brett. as for some even Christians in Lumberton that have stopped going to church because of these attitudes, it isn’t just Lumberton…worse down here in the south, and SE Texas especially, but it’s happening all over, with the rise of this horrible ungodly ‘religious right’ neo-conservativsm trend. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 8:24pm

      • Anonymous Atheist

        Ugh, linebreak-eating Disqus strikes again… trying again.

        A few good comments I saw posted there:

        ” Worse than what these Kountze kids are doing is what these parents and other adults are doing under the term “supporting” them..they are encourageing them in what is both unglodly, un-Christian, and to act like a gang of bullies. This is a public school, not a private religious church run school! Any child there that doesn’t feel a part of this, whether as a Christian that objects to this kind of public display of religious-based belligerance, or from a athiest or other religious background, has to be feeling very intimidated and frightened at all this. And what does this display of God being on Kountze’s ‘side’ say of/to the kids, parents, families, school personnel, connected to that OTHER school’s team that will be playing this or any other game, “against” Kountze kids? Disgusting, and ungodly, and I AM a Christian that sees this as anything but Christian behavior. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 7:52pm” Jenell, and that it is probably why this person who made this complaint wishes to remain anonymous.I went to Lumberton High in the 90′s and even though I was mercilessly bullied or hated on from junior high until I moved away because everyone though I was a homosexual or because I hung out with the “skater kids” and therefore did drugs.I’ve never done drugs, and neither did most of my friends, but we all got the same treatment. I know lots of people in Lumberton who have stopped going to church simply because of this kind of attitude and it is really sad. “- Brett Walker, Sunday at 8:14pm” i can fully understand, Brett. I have very painful memories from as a child, when Christian religious bullying was not yet being legally addressed in public schools (I’m 63)….my family was Christian, but my mother had discovered the pagan origins of christmass, and we did not celebrate it, and I wasn’t allowed to participate in Christmass holidat activites at school. Me, a few others that included JW’s, Jewish, etc, would be shunted off aside while holiday things like decorating, parties, etc went on, which itself hurt, feeling excluded. but the bullying, the taunts, being called athiests, devil worshippers, told we didn’t beleive in god, in hateful tones, and yes, even some physical assaults, being spit on, having mud smeared on our clothes, pushed around on the playground…by those so-called christian kids, while even teachers looked on without helping us. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 8:21pm” Brett. as for some even Christians in Lumberton that have stopped going to church because of these attitudes, it isn’t just Lumberton…worse down here in the south, and SE Texas especially, but it’s happening all over, with the rise of this horrible ungodly ‘religious right’ neo-conservativsm trend. “- Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson, Sunday at 8:24pm

        • Anonymous Atheist

          Okay, I give up. sigh

          • Drew M.

            They were still worth reading!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kandlelight Lynn Wilder-Burrett

    Hey Hemant…  Any way you can adjust where your Facebook “like” button is?  I liked it and wanted to make a comment along with the link but the box that drops down is so big there is no button to click to “submit” it. :(

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I think it’s part of the plugin so I can’t change it easily… :(

  • Drew M.

    A hell-in-a-handbasket o’ treats!

    Good on you, Kaci, et al. Office staff is far too often unappreciated.

  • The Godless Monster

    I send gift baskets to clients and certain prospects. I don’t send gift baskets to government workers for doing their job, no matter how unfashionable or painful their job may be.
    It’s also best f0r all parties involved to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Whatever local statutes may state about the limitations of gifts values etc., is irrelevant to me. It just doesn’t look good when one party in a legal dispute gives the governing/adjudicating/decision making body a gift of thanks.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

    DISCLAIMER: I don’t use the “threaded comments” because their implementation is horribly user-unfriendly after about the fifth response.

    Rich Wilson,

    SCOTUS is irrelevant to my remark about Jefferson. That SCOTUS feels one way doesn’t necessarily mean that Jefferson would approve. Similarly, that Jefferson might not approve doesn’t mean you should. These are differences of opinion, and unfortunately, we’ve no real way to get at the truth here.

    Nice try trying to make Church/State separation an atheist only issue though.

    That’s your own assumption, not at all what I said.

    Martin,

    Like I said, we may as well agree to disagree. I’m fine with that, because I’m confident my views are more in line with Jefferson’s. Take a look at his actions while in office. 

    Gary B,

    Our society and government have progressed since his time to be more inclusive and respectful of all our citizens.

    In some respects, sure, but to me, it’s also regressed to be more exclusive and less respectful of some of it’s citizens—and to me, this is one of them. 

    Representatives of the school showing preference for one religion goes completely against that ideal.

    They would only be “showing preference” if they denied, say, Muslim cheerleaders the right to do the same. As long as rights aren’t denied, then, in my view, they’re simply honoring the principle of freedom to express one’s religion. 

  • Gouxpauir

    Oh kacy but they work for the group and since they represent the group that would not be right. It could be construed as a bribery.

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