- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A group seeking to keep public schools religion-free is again decrying practices in the Rankin County school district.

The American Humanist Association says a Northwest Rankin High School teacher who is also a Baptist minister is illegally insulting atheists in class.

In a letter Tuesday to the Rankin County School District, the association cites complaints from a student and parent that world history teacher Rick Hammarstrom has repeatedly promoted Christianity and disparaged atheists in class this fall.

“For instance, on October 8, 2015, Mr. Hammarstrom stood up and announced during class: ‘Atheists are throwing a fit because they don’t have their own day,’” attorney Monica Miller wrote in the letter. “He continued: ‘They do have their own day; it’s called April Fool’s Day, because you are a fool if you don’t believe in God.’”

The district and Hammarstrom didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

According to search engine results, Hammarstrom’s biography on the school’s website noted that he was the pastor of Rehobeth Baptist Church in Pelahatchie as late as Sept. 27, but it no longer listed that affiliation Tuesday.

“According to the student, these types of remarks are becoming more frequent and the teacher continues to express hatred towards atheists and favoritism for Christians,” Miller wrote. “The parent and student are atheists and understandably feel affronted and stigmatized by the teacher’s actions. Worse, the teacher’s hurtful remarks make the student feel extremely unwelcome in her own classroom.”

The association and Mississippi’s third-largest school district have repeatedly tangled in the recent years over religion in schools.

A student sued in 2013, complaining of a Christian assembly at Northwest Rankin High, and the district agreed to an order by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves that it would not advance religion during school hours. Then, in July, Reeves fined the district $7,500 for opening an honors assembly with a Christian prayer and allowing Bible distribution at an elementary school, and threatened it with $10,000 fines for each future violation. This fall, the district banned the Brandon High School band from playing the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” citing Reeves’ order.

Miller said the student and her parent did not wish to speak to reporters, because they’re trying to preserve their privacy.

“I believe he’s targeting atheists,” Miller said. “I don’t know if the student’s beliefs are known to the teacher or not.”

The seven-page letter cited a long line of federal court cases across the nation ordering schools to stop promoting religion, including several that bar teachers from discussing their religious beliefs, and one that ruled administrators could order a teacher to stop wearing a Jesus 2000 T-shirt.

The letter demanded that Hammarstrom be warned to stop immediately and disciplined if he continued. Miller also demanded that every school district employee get a letter by Oct. 26 telling them they aren’t supposed to make remarks promoting religion or disparaging atheism.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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