The Claiborne Board of Education in northeastern Tennessee must be itching for a lawsuit because they announced last month that November 7 would now be known as “Billy Graham Day” in the district. Each school “would be free to celebrate the life of the famous evangelist, in any way it so chooses.” (November 7 is his birthday.)
But why would a public school district declare a special day for a man known primarily for spreading Christianity? Unlike, say, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., you can’t seriously make a case that Graham was a widely revered and respected man who just happened to be a preacher. He was, first and foremost, an evangelist. (And one who dabbled in anti-Semitism, no less.)
The board’s lawyer James Estep III must have had the same reaction because he informed the board weeks later about how they would have to rescind the honor. Estep explained how the district had already lost a major church/state battle in 1988 and this latest offense could result in an even steeper fine down the road.
“We are operating under a federal court order from about 1988, prohibiting proselytizing religion. The action that was taken (the adoption of Billy Graham Day), in my opinion, violates that order.
“I’m a Baptist. I’m a deacon. I have to separate church from state in this situation. We’re subject to litigation, damages if we allow that to occur,” said Estep, referring to the court case brought against the county for allowing the ‘Bible lady’ to visit the various schools.
The 1988 court order, he said, cost the county about $30,000, minus any attorney’s fees. In today’s money, the payout would equal about $200,000, he added.
Smart lawyer. The board would be wise to take his advice.
Unfortunately, we’re talking about a board that includes a guy who thought Billy Graham Day was a good idea to begin with. He’s not a legal scholar. Hell, he’s not even someone who’s read the First Amendment. Which is why he pushed back against the legal advice.
Board member Justin Cosby, who had initially proposed Billy Graham Day, said during the full board meeting that he had been in contact with four attorneys.
“They basically said, as long as we’re not enforcing a religion, if we are just recognizing him — teaching about him through the historical lens — that would be acceptable,” said Cosby.
What “historical lens”? Again, if you take his preaching out of the picture — since there’s nothing useful or honorable about that — there’s nothing left. He meant a lot to Christians, and that’s it. Just because he offered advice to several presidents isn’t, relatively speaking, a big deal. Plenty of people gave advice to presidents. Just because politicians wanted their photo ops with him doesn’t mean he deserves a special day in a public school.
At least other board members raised appropriate concerns.
Board member Shane Bunch asked whether an atheist or agnostic could be recognized within the school setting.
Estep said it could not be done due to the religious aspect attached to that person.
That’s true. We shouldn’t have Richard Dawkins Day in public schools either. (Though at least Dawkins has made significant contributions to our understanding of science.)
Then there was the fear that other groups may want to take advantage of the same rules…
Board vice-chair Shannon England said allowing Billy Graham Day could set a precedent.
“If we allow this, the next board that’s elected — let’s say they’re not Christians, and they say ‘we want to have Muhammad Day.’ What can we do if we say this is OK? Can we say that’s not,” said England.
Estep said allowing a Muhammad Day would also violate the separation of church and state. Allowing Billy Graham Day to stand would establish the necessary precedent for a possible Muhammad Day, he said.
“They could point to that and could probably be successful in litigation,” said Estep.
And we haven’t even started talking about Satanists…
The issue wasn’t resolved. It was just tabled until the May meeting. Which means, for now, Billy Graham Day is still on the books.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)