The Appignani Humanist Legal Center/American Humanist Association on Thursday complained of "several serious and ongoing violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment occurring at Bay High School."
The group sent a statement to the Sea Coast Echo dated Oct. 10. It was also sent via email to BWSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Reed, and BHS Principal Dr. Amy Coyne, the letter states.
According to the letter, the AHA is a "national nonprofit organization with over 34,000 members across the country, including many in Mississippi. The mission of AHA's legal center is to protect one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy; the constitutional mandate requiring a separation of church and state."
Monica Miller, legal director and senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said her office was contacted about the matter by a "parent of children in the BWSD." The complainant is not named in the letter.
"Our complainant reports that Mr. Eric Collins, a teacher and football coach at Bay High School, regularly abuses the authority of both of his positions to proselytize Christianity to this students," Miller said.
Miller lists the following reported incidents: "Mr. Collins told his class that he hoped the students would all 'find Jesus someday'; Mr. Collins told his students during a personal finance class that both he and his father had 'found Jesus.' In the same class, Mr. Collins asked one of his students what 'God intended them to do with their money'; On a separate occasion, Mr. Collins expressed his opinion to students that the Big Bang Theory is false because 'God created life'; In his capacity as coach of the Bay High School Tigers football team, Mr. Collins organizes weekly team breakfasts and meetings for players at a local church called the Power House of Deliverance every Friday morning; Mr. Collins sent letters home with players that include scripture. The example which we were provided is dated July 2, 2019, and reads: 'The scripture says in Galatians 6:9, 'Let us not become weary in working hard, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up'; and both Mr. Collins and other athletic coaches reportedly participate in prayers with players before games."
According to the letter, the Establishment Cause "commands a separation of church and state," and requires the "government remain secular, rather than affiliate itself with religious beliefs or institutions," and "may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization, nor discriminate among persons on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices. Neither a state nor the federal government can openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa."
Miller said that the fifth circuit has also "specifically made clear that public schools may not permit teachers to endorse religion during school activities," and if the "students' engagement with Mr. Collins' unconstitutional conduct was 'voluntary' is wholly irrelevant to the legal question."
"In view of these authorities, it is plain that the district is in violation of the Establishment Clause," Miller said. "This letter serves as an official notice of the unconstitutional activity and a formal demand that the district terminate this and any similar illegal activity immediately. We demand a written reply within two weeks of receipt of this letter setting forth the steps you will take to rectify this constitutional infringement."
According to the letter, Miller said that the organization "prefers to leave it up to school administrators to determine the actions it will take to correct the Establishment Clause violations."
However, Miller did offer suggestions: That the district adopt a formal policy prohibiting district staff from participating in prayer with students; end Mr. Collins' practice of hosting football team meetings at Power House Deliverance; and enforce policies by "monitoring athletic program events and by sanctioning school officials for non-compliance with the penalties assessed for similar school code violations."
BWSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Reed said Thursday that she has yet to speak with anyone at the organization about the matter.
"We try very hard to do what's best for our students within the constraints of the law," Reed said.