Fox News' Todd Starnes accused a Georgia elementary school of "confiscating" Christmas cards in an effort to stifle religious expression, prompting outrage from residents and threats of corrective legislation from Georgia lawmakers. But according to the school district, Starnes' allegations are completely false.
In a story posted on his Fox News Radio show titled "Georgia School Confiscates Christmas Cards," Starnes cited the husband of one teacher at the school who claimed many teachers were "disgruntled by the school's decision to confiscate the Christmas cards." Starnes asserted that the Bulloch County Board of Education "cracked down" on the Christmas card display, as well as many other acts of "religious expression in their schools" :
Teachers have been ordered to remove any religious icons or items from their classrooms - ranging from Bibles to Christian music.
Teachers have also been instructed to avoid student-led prayers at all costs. Should they be in a room where students are praying, teachers have been ordered to turn their backs on their students.
Hundreds of outraged residents have joined a Facebook page to protest the crackdown - and many are vowing to attend a school board meeting on Thursday to let school officials have a piece of their mind.
The Board of Education released a statement late Tuesday denying the moving of the Christmas cards had anything to do with the "current open and ongoing discussions that the school system is having with local citizens about religious liberties and expression."
"We don't want this misinformation to derail the positive work we are committed to with our community leaders," Supt. Charles Wilson said in a prepared statement. "I'm appalled by this attack on our school system, and on Brooklet Elementary."
After Starnes' article, right wing media outlets picked up his story adding to outrage in the community. Town Hall reprinted Starnes' article and The Blaze reported that according to Fox News, "administrators reportedly asked teachers to move a group of hallway Christmas cards out of the view of students." Starnes' report even led one Georgia state senator, Judson Hill (R), to denounce the Bulloch County Board of Education and threaten to "explore possible legislation, if needed, to protect religious freedom of GA taxpayers":
But Starnes' story is wrong; the cards were moved "due to a legitimate, personal privacy concern," according to school officials. Local NBC station WSAV reported the Bulloch County School officials were determined to fight back after what they called a "false news report was filed by a Fox News Radio." The story explained:
The Principal of Brooklet, Marlin Baker, said that is not the case. Baker said it's a faculty tradition to hang staff Christmas cards up on a poster. Usually the poster hangs out in the hallway for students to see but Baker said one of the teachers had a privacy issue so the poster was moved into the faculty work room. School staff said when the poster was moved on Monday that it didn't even have any Christmas cards on it.
"The decision to move the poster had nothing, absolutely nothing, at all to do with any type of religious conversation that is going on in the county," said Marlin.
The Superintendent said the misinformation caused the school to get flooded with calls and emails of outcry.
"[I am] disappointed. We are trying hard in this community to have a good, healthy dialogue and it seems the intentional spreading of this misinformation I see it as destructive,"
In a statement about the Fox's report, Bulloch Country Schools explained "holiday traditions and especially those of Christmas are alive and well" (emphasis added):
Unfortunately, today the school was terrorized by an intentional and vicious dissemination of untrue information that disrupted the good work going on inside. Fox News Radio Commentary Host Todd Starnes, acting on misinformation that neither he, nor his media outlet corroborated with the school system or Baker, misreported a story about student Christmas Cards being removed from the school. Baker did not receive any questions from the local community either.
The cards in question were not student Christmas cards, nor were they a student project or tradition. The cards are the personal family Christmas cards that faculty members share with one another. They are the personal cards from their homes that they would send to family and friends.
It has been a faculty tradition to post the cards on a small display board made of two pieces of red and green poster paper. The display in the past was posted in hallway outside the office workroom.
This year, due to a legitimate, personal privacy concern raised by one of the school's staff members, Baker moved the display to the opposite wall inside the office work room so that the staff member could still participate in the tradition. Baker wanted to respect the staff member's privacy and that of his/her children depicted in the Christmas card.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) pointed out Starnes' "hyperbole," noting the other signs of Christmas around the school Starnes failed to see:
A WSAV news crew on Monday provided footage of a school that obviously has no problem with Christmas trees. Or holiday artwork by students. Or Christmas cards. No one has been asked not to say "Merry Christmas."
Fox News continues its campaign to highlight the phony "war on Christmas" by using stories from far right organizations or pushing misinformation to hype a culture war on Christmas that doesn't exist.