Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Religious Display Depends On Context and Purpose

The following testimony took place between 9:11 a.m.—10:34 a.m. on 6/02/10.

The items in the classroom of John Freshwater were not part of a religious display, according to expert witness Michael Molnar.

Molnar’s conclusion was based on photos and information Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, provided to Molnar about Freshwater’s classroom. Molnar, an elementary principal for the last eight years, testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

(The John Freshwater hearing is taking place at the Mount Vernon Board of Education offices.)

Religious display

Molnar said that a thorough investigation is important in determining whether something is a religious display. If someone complained to him about items posted in a classroom, he would ask the teacher why the items were there and where the items came from.

The “George Bush/Colin Powell” poster that Freshwater had posted in the classroom could serve a patriotic purpose, Molnar said. The teacher would have no reason to think there was a problem with the poster unless notified that there was an issue with it, Molnar said.

A Bible, Koran or Torah is not a religious display in and of itself, Molnar said.

Molnar said that the book covers placed by Freshwater, for security reasons, over a window are not inherently religious because there are other quotes on the covers in addition to the Ten Commandments.

If a teacher’s room is used for the meeting place of a student organization, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, then it is permissible for the students to store their club items in the room, Molnar said. The areas that a student organization could post things would be determined by the school or the club’s advisor, Molnar said.

Molnar defined a religious display as one that is being used to try to proselytize.

Prompt investigation

Policies and procedures established by a school district for the investigation of complaints insure that all are treated fairly, Molnar said. Promptness is also important, Molnar said, especially when students are involved.

If an allegation is made against a teacher then the students involved should, when possible, be interviewed the same day, Molnar said.

Molnar’s response to an allegation of a student being burned—such as what the Dennis family says happened in Freshwater’s class—would be to talk with the child in question. He would find out what other witnesses were present, talk with the teacher, and determine whether the students were in any danger.

Molnar said that he would want statements obtained from witnesses and put into writing promptly in order to insure the integrity of the investigation.

Schools are required to report injuries to Children’s Services, Molnar said.

School administration

The administration should follow conversation about a directive with something in writing, Molnar said. He also said that it is the administration’s responsibility to follow guidelines, procedures and the master contract—to insure the integrity of any investigations and fairness to all staff members.

For more information, see the affidavit of Molnar ( 696.81 KB PDF).

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