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Board of Education unanimously votes to remove Christian flag from boardroom

In a unanimous vote, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to donate the Christian flag previously on display in its boardroom to the Unicoi County Ministerial Association.
The vote, which took place in front of a large crowd during a meeting of the board on Thursday, Jan. 21, officially addressed a request that the flag be removed from the boardroom issued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in November.
In November, the FFRF sent a letter to Director of Schools John English and the board and requested the removal of the flag.
“The Christian flag being displayed during public school board meetings unabashedly created the perception of government endorsement of Christianity,” FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert stated in the letter. “The display of this Christian flag is a brazen affront to the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
“Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages of iconography in public schools. A majority of federal courts have held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
A news release was also issued on the FFRF’s website.
“The presence of this Christian symbol sends a message not only that the school board inappropriately endorses Christianity, but that the non-Christian children and parents in the community are disfavored,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the release.
Thursday’s vote followed a recommendation by English that the board pass a resolution to donate the flag to the Ministerial Association.
“Over the past couple of months there has been significant debate and discussion regarding the Christian flag that stands alongside the American flag behind us,” English said during the meeting. “This flag has stood there largely unnoticed for many, many years as a quiet symbol of the values many citizens in our community share. Accordingly, most of us were surprised when someone voiced an objection to this flag in early November.”
English then said he and the board have consulted with their attorney, Scott Bennett of the Chattanooga firm Leitner & Williams, and other organizations regarding the issue on several occasions.
“We have come to understand that while the (Christian) flag represents a faith shared by most of this community, according to federal law no governmental entity is allowed to endorse a particular religious viewpoint under our system of government,” English continued. “We, as members of the Unicoi County Board of Education, have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the state of Tennessee.
“As a result, while we as individuals strongly affirm our commitment to those things that the Christian flag represents, we as governmental officials recognize that this flag can only be displayed by individuals of this community who have rights of freedom of expression and can legally enjoy to exercise that freedom, especially when it comes to religion,” English continued. “Accordingly, it seems most fitting that we should donate it to people in this community who can and will fly this flag in exercise of those individual rights.”
Voting in favor of donating the flag were board members Tyler Engle, Garland “Bubba” Evely, Cathy Thomas, Steve Willis, Ruth Gaines and Lisa White.
Following the vote, English officially presented the Christian flag to Rev. Noah Taylor, pastor of Evergreen Freewill Baptist Church and president of the Unicoi County Ministerial Association.
“On behalf of the Ministerial Association as well as our Christian community, I would like to thank personally Mr. English, the school board and the school administration for this donation,” Taylor said.
Taylor went on to say that the flag will be displayed at the Unicoi County Family YMCA on a daily basis. The flag will also be available to members of the Ministerial Association and private citizens to bring the flag to school board meetings in the future.
“Our plan moving forward, as private citizens of this community, is to allow people involved in our Ministerial Association, as well as private citizens involved in our churches, to display this flag at monthly meetings moving forward,” Taylor said.
The FFRF issued a press release regarding the flag’s removal on Friday, Jan. 22.
“This is a solid victory for state-church separation,” said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in the release. “Often school districts will decide to follow the law after FFRF tells them what the law says. There is no question that a school board conducting business in front of a Christian flag sends the message that Christianity is the District's preferred religion.”