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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Vol. 31 No. 2 Fall 2004

The Religious Free Speech Rights of Public School Teachers:
Wigg v. Sioux Falls School District 49-5

Charles J. Russo

Amid on-going debate over the appropriate place of religious speech and activities in public schools, the Eighth Circuit, in a case of first impression, meaning that it was an issue that had not been litigated previously, considered the extent to which teachers can exercise their right to religious free speech in public schools. In Wigg v. Sioux Falls School District 49-5 (Wigg), relying heavily on Supreme Court precedent protecting religious expression as a subset of free speech, the Eighth Circuit held that a teacher in South Dakota could participate in the meetings of a religious club that took place after school regardless of whether they occurred in her school or another one in the district. In light of the issues that Wigg raises, this article is divided into two parts. The first section reviews the analysis of the Eighth Circuit’s opinion in Wigg while the second part reflects on the case’s meaning for American public schools.

Wigg v. Sioux Falls School District 49-5

Facts

Wigg
involved a second-third grade teacher who, along with her regular professional duties, was active in after school programs for students such as the Girl Scouts and providing private guitar lessons. The dispute began in October 2002 when school officials, acting pursuant to board policy, granted a Good News Club (Club),
sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship, permission to conduct meetings at a school in the district. The meetings took place after school, by which time students, other than those who were with teachers or taking part in Club meetings, had left the school. As stated in its literature, the Club’s purpose is to "evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in the local church for Christian living." In order to be able to participate in Club meetings, students needed to submit signed permission slips from their parents.

The teacher attended the Club’s first meeting on December 15, 2002. At the meeting, which attracted nine children, including "some" of the teacher’s students, participants "played a game, learned a Bible verse, and heard a Christian story." After a staff member at the school asked the principal about the appropriateness of the teacher’s teaching religion at the Club meeting, the principal directed her to stop doing so. The principal ordered the teacher to end her participation because she feared that the teacher’s participation might have been perceived as an establishment of religion. As of that date, the teacher had not participated in Club meetings any place in the district.

After meeting with the principal, the teacher sent a letter to the superintendent asking permission that she be allowed to participate in Club activities. Although she noted that children needed a signed parental permission slip and suggested the use of a disclaimer which explained that she was acting in her private capacity, her request was denied on January 17, 2003 for the same reason as provided by the principal. The teacher sent a follow-up letter on January 28, 2003 but was again denied permission to take part in Club activities. The letter from the school board indicated that while its Religion Policy permits staff members to attend church services in schools if their churches lease facilities from the district, her continued participation in Club meetings would have violated the policy.

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