State Law vs Federal Court Order: School system seeks legal advice over displaying ‘In God We Trust’

Published 5:46 pm Thursday, August 16, 2018

Carter County School System officials are currently seeking legal advice on how to proceed with a conundrum that has them stuck between a state law and a federal court order.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill, which was then signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam, requiring all public schools within the state to prominently display the national motto “In God We Trust” inside the school in an area where students are likely to see it.

Carter County School System officials told the Elizabethton Star on Thursday they want to display the motto and comply with state law, but they must also consider a federal court order prohibiting the system from promoting religious messages in the schools.

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In 1988, the U.S. District Court in Greeneville issued a permanent injunction against the Carter County School System as part of a settlement agreement in a federal class-action lawsuit brought against the system by individuals claiming the school system and its officials violated the First Amendment rights of students by allowing and encouraging religious activities on campus during school hours.

The order ending the lawsuit was signed by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull on November 23, 1988, and included a permanent injunction against the school system. The Elizabethton Star obtained a copy of the final judgment in the lawsuit, which includes the injunction.

“It is ordered that a permanent injunction should issue perpetually enjoining, restraining and prohibiting the above named defendants in their official capacities and their successors, agents and employees from allowing, approving or encouraging religious activities in the public schools for Carter County, Tennessee during public school hours,” the order signed by Hull states.

Carter County Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward said the new state law puts the school system at odds with the permanent injunction issued by the federal court.

“The question now is which supersedes the other,” Ward said. “Our current path is to explore our legal options. We have been communicating with different people to see what legal ground we stand on.”

So far, according to Ward and Carter County Board of Education Chairman Rusty Barnett, the school system has received advice from two different attorneys regarding the matter.

“We’ve talked to our local attorney and a state attorney in Nashville and they have both advised us not to display it until we can get the matter back in federal court,” Barnett said. “That is our intention, to get it back in court to see if we can get the injunction overturned.”

Barnett said he and other Board members and system officials want to comply with state law and display the “In God We Trust” motto, but they must first find their legal footing.

“We are on board and want to do this, but we don’t want to violate the federal injunction,” Barnett said. “We have to go by the injunction. We are not happy with this situation.”

“We ask for everyone to be patient with us because we are working to solve this, it is just going to take some time,” he added.

Both Ward and Barnett said they have been in touch with state and federal lawmakers seeking guidance and assistance with the issue. Barnett said he has also heard from numerous members of the community — including parents of students and local ministers — asking about the school system’s plan to deal with the issue and inquiring how they can support the system in their efforts to be able to display the motto.

Barnett said the Board of Education will likely hold a special called meeting later this month to address the options available to them.

To read a copy of the Final Judgment in the lawsuit CLICK HERE.