ACLU’s Holiday Message Labeled ‘Suspicious Activity’ By Tennessee Counter-Terrorism Officials

Written by Faiz Shakir for thinkprogress.org Text of actual letter from aclu.org

Text of actual letter follows article-LTS

Tennessee’s state counter-terrorism officials at the Tennessee Fusion Center maintain an open-source internet map which identifies “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee found its way briefly onto the map earlier this month, after the civil rights group penned a letter to school superintendents encouraging “schools to be supportive of all religious beliefs during the holiday season.” The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports what happened next:

The Fusion Center’s Internet map is part of a national map maintained by globalincidentmap.com. Information is provided by agencies across the U.S. It includes various blinking icons. The map’s label originally was titled Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity.

Near Nashville, a blinking hexagon-shaped symbol with an exclamation point read “ACLU cautions TN schools about ‘observing one religious holiday.'” The hexagon symbol, when clicked on, originally stated “suspicious activity.” But it later was changed to say “general nonincident terrorism news” after inquiries by reporters.


Mike Browning, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Homeland Security, acknowledged that listing ACLU’s letter as a terrorist incident “was a mistake.” ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg responded, “I will take at their word that they made a mistake by posting it under terrorism activity…[but] I have not heard a good explanation for why school resource officers, who have a very important job in schools, would at all be interested or need to know about the letter we sent to local school superintendents about the need to keep holiday celebrations all inclusive.”

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Actual letter follows…

ACLU-TN Alerts Tennessee Public Schools
To Importance of Inclusivity at the Holidays

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 7, 2010

CONTACT: Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE – Responding to numerous complaints from families about religious holiday activities in Tennessee public schools, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) sent a letter late yesterday to the 137 public school superintendents across the state. The letter reminded school officials that holiday celebrations focusing primarily on one religious holiday amount to a school’s unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

“The founders of the United States believed in the significance of religion. But they also understood that decisions about when and how to practice religion are best left to individuals, families and religious institutions,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director. “During the holiday season, it is especially important that we all embrace the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment in order to ensure that religious freedom flourishes.”

The ACLU-TN letter cites several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, explaining that “While public schools can teach about religion and religious holidays, public schools may not engage in indoctrination. Thus comparative religion courses can be taught but endorsing religious doctrine or sponsoring religious activities is unconstitutional.”

The letter further explains, “[ACLU-TN] welcome[s] holiday celebrations that teach children about a variety of holidays. We believe, however, that holiday celebrations that focus primarily on one religious holiday can result in indoctrination as well as a sense within students who do not share that religion of being outsiders to the school.”

ACLU-TN’s recent letter to superintendents, as well as the organization’s “Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools – A Guide for Administrators and Teachers,” can be found at http://www.aclu-tn.org/religiousfreedom.htm#resources.