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International film crew stirs Keller ISD debate over separation of religion, education

 An international film crew visited Keller ISD’s Central High School in February for an episode of a program called “God, Jesus, Trump!” The aftermath of the visit has resulted in two resignations and a district investigation. Religion and law experts described the series of events as reflecting the complexities of the First Amendment.
Illustration by Rachel Behrndt;Matthew Sgroi
/
Fort Worth Report
An international film crew visited Keller ISD’s Central High School in February for an episode of a program called “God, Jesus, Trump!” The aftermath of the visit has resulted in two resignations and a district investigation. Religion and law experts described the series of events as reflecting the complexities of the First Amendment.

Tensions between parents and Keller ISD leadership remain nearly two months after a film crew visited Central High School for a show called “God, Jesus, Trump!”

The day’s filming led to a sequence of events that affected the school community and ultimately resulted in two resignations and an ongoing district investigation. Religious and constitutional law experts described the series of events as reflecting the complexities of the First Amendment.

The crew, hired by Netherlands-based broadcasting network Evangelische Omroep — or EO for short — visited the high school campus to film an interview with trustee Sandi Walker, who later resigned.

EO is a media company that creates programming about faith and current events. With the presidential election ahead, EO plans to release a fourth season of “God, Jesus, Trump!” The state of Texas will be featured in the final episode, called “War on Woke.”

Keller ISD, teacher share thoughts about the encounter

Elizabeth Mitias thought she’d seen it all after 16 years as a teacher.

That changed Feb. 9 when the Keller ISD engineering teacher crossed paths with a school board member and the EO film crew in a Central High School hallway. Crew members wore visitors stickers on their shirts, and one man was shouldering a large camera.

“I kind of recognized the board member that was with them. Couldn’t really place her until later,” Mitias said. “They were trying to go into one of the special ed rooms that I passed. Being waved off from that one, they just went down the hallway.”

Keller ISD Superintendent Tracy Johnson wrote in an email to parents that the film crew was interviewing Walker and was later joined by trustee Michah Young. While there, the film crew toured the school and talked to students and employees.

The school district was not aware of the scheduled interview, Johnson wrote. She also assured parents in the email that the film company told the district no students or teachers would be visible in the production.

The district plans to prevent similar situations from happening in the future, a Keller ISD spokesperson told the Fort Worth Report.

Keller ISD parents, including Laney Hawes, want more information about the visit and have been trying to piece together what happened through records requests. Hawes and other parents also have filed grievances related to the event at Central High School.

“We don’t have the full picture, and as a parent, that’s really frustrating,” Hawes said.

Difficulties in determining separation of church and state violations

Determining whether the separation between church and state has been violated has its challenges, said Lynne Rambo, a professor emerita with Texas A&M School of Law.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings related to the First Amendment have set precedents for more protections for school employees engaging in public displays of religion. For example, in 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that a Washington state coach’s right to pray at a football game was protected by the First Amendment.

Legal cases about violations over the separation of church and state need to prove that public institutions intentionally forced religion on their constituents, Rambo said.

Emails between some Keller ISD trustees and Petrie Trudell, a researcher with EO, are the crux of the issue for Rambo.

Trudell asked to interview “someone who is conservative and can also share about the importance of faith, especially in regards to what young children have to read in school,” according to records parents obtained and the Fort Worth Report verified with Keller ISD.

Walker agreed to the interview, writing: “Yes I would love to meet this weekend and chat. I too want to glorify God as well.”

Rambo offered her thoughts on the email exchange.

“That email is powerful evidence since this was done with the intent to advance religion,” she said, but how the district treats other religious or nonreligious organizations seeking to enter its schools is important, too.

“If they do let other organizations, secular organizations, in, then they were kind of in the position that they might have had to,” Rambo said. “Because they don’t want to be discriminating against the evangelical view.”

 Tracy Johnson, the new Keller ISD superintendent, center, sits among trustees after the school board hired her at a special meeting Dec. 18, 2023. Johnson’s first day was Jan. 2, 2024.
Dang Le
/
Fort Worth Report
Tracy Johnson, the new Keller ISD superintendent, center, sits among trustees after the school board hired her at a special meeting Dec. 18, 2023. Johnson’s first day was Jan. 2, 2024.

Experts weigh in

The First Amendment has two provisions concerning religion:

  • The Establishment Clause prohibits state institutions from declaring a specific religion. 
  • The Free Exercise Clause protects people in demonstrating their faith.


Historically, the “establishment of religion” meant prohibiting state-sponsored churches.

Lawrence Sager is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law and specializes in religion and constitutional law.

When it comes to separation between church and state, the clauses protect both secular institutions — such as public schools — and religious communities, Sager said.

What does the First Amendment say about religion?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Key: Establishment Clause | Free Exercise Clause

“We don’t want the state making judgments about matters of religion and we don’t want the state affirming some religious persons and thereby disparaging everyone else in the community,” Sager said.

Public schools can be a place where religious and nonreligious people interact, Sager said. Schools have to balance being both welcoming and neutral toward the wide range of faiths in the community.

“When you bring that film crew into the school, you really stir the pot,” Sager said.

Parents voice support, questions and concerns

Following the film crew’s visit, parents flooded a Feb. 29 school board meeting to voice their opinions over the filming and Walker’s resignation.

 Parents and students of Keller ISD gather for a Feb. 29 school board meeting. Attendees voiced support, questions and concerns over EO’s film crew visiting Central High School on Feb. 9. <br/>
Matthew Sgroi
/
Fort Worth Report
Parents and students of Keller ISD gather for a Feb. 29 school board meeting. Attendees voiced support, questions and concerns over EO’s film crew visiting Central High School on Feb. 9.

Haley Stallaby voiced her support for Walker at the meeting and thanked her for the time she served as a school board member.

“Joy radiated from her as she celebrated students receiving awards, opening meetings in prayer and voted in ways to protect and support students, teachers and staff of Keller,” Stallaby said before reading from Ephesians in the Bible.

Keller ISD alumni and parent Ben Nelson questioned why a religious and political television program became involved with the district.

“I can’t think of a good reason why a foreign film crew would be filming inside of our campuses. Maybe the board could neither. And that’s why they decided to not go through the proper preclearance channels,” Nelson said.

Among the parents in attendance was Mitias, who’s been teaching at Keller ISD for five years. She presented a resignation letter she sent to the school earlier that week.

The evangelical broadcasting company’s visit was the last straw, Mitias said, and motivated her to quit. She hopes that the district will keep religion separate from classrooms, she said.

Trudell wants the show to speak for itself.

She declined an interview request, but in a written statement defended the program, calling it neutral and respected.

She said that the network will respond in the Texas episode of the program to everything that happened.

The “real story,” as Trudell described it, is expected to be released April 14 on the company’s streaming site.

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or @marissaygreene. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Marissa Greene | Fort Worth Report