Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Proselytizing in Nebraska's Public Schools

by Kyle Michaelis
At least one citizen of the small town of Thedford, Nebraska - population 211, located approximately 60 miles north of North Platte - is outraged by the public school's allowing the Assembly of God Church troubling access to school resources, particularly the impressionable minds of its students.

The North Platte Telegraph reports:
The superintendent of the Thedford School District will not be terminated - as was requested by a parent at a contentious school board meeting Monday night - but he will follow through on plans to retire at the end of the school year....

Parent Gary Reiser appeared before the school board Monday night to demand [Bevin] Brown's immediate termination, claiming that Brown has not dealt with complaints of religion-based programs held during school hours and peer pressure from students to join the Assembly of God Church.

Reiser asked the board Monday if a program called "the Sevens Project" violated the separation of church and state. He alleged Brown told him it was "no big deal" when Reiser expressed concern about the sex education part of the program, and the church's involvement.

The Seven's Project program was held in the school, during school hours, and focused on sex education and avoiding drugs. The project website teaches abstinence and a drug-free lifestyle. Principal Gary Klahn said he believed that drug-free grant money paid for half of the $2,100 program fee and the Assembly of God Church paid for the rest.

Pastor Jonathon Busch said the church did not pay for the day-long program, but did arrange for the group to put on an evening program. "We paid to rent the gym, and our goal was to reach out to unchurched kids," Busch said....

Addressing allegations made at the meeting about religious information placed in lockers, Jonathon Busch said that a church youth member went against leadership instructions.

Associate Pastor Clay Luttrell told youth members of the Assembly of God Church to give those who came forward at the altar call a book titled the "Book of Hope." "It is my understanding that the person acted on their own and gave the books out during school, which was against our instructions," Luttrell said.

Jonathon Busch said the person became overzealous, but he has dealt with the situation and addressed it extensively in staff meetings.

Hamilton said he didn't have a problem with activities like the Sevens Project....

Klahn said an assembly will take place address the issues brought up at Monday's meeting...

"Students will be told to place their Bible verse magnets inside their lockers, and if a student finds religious pamphlets in his or her locker, the student is to tell Brown or me immediately," Klahn said.

This story is indicative of a growing problem across the nation as churches explore new ways of infiltrating public schools, with what seems to be unstated government approval from elected officials' general lack of concern for the flagrant unconstitutionality of such programs.

While this article suggests Principal Klahn is doing what he can to correct a bad situation, it's clear Superintendent Brown has no understanding whatsoever of this severe violation of the public's trust. That students are expected to tell Brown if any further proselytizing occurs is a laughable and entirely inadequate response when he has already characterized this conduct as "no big deal."

In a small town, it takes a lot of courage to complain about any unwanted religious influence because churches are often the strongest force in the community. Challenging that influence, even when it is completely inappropriate (as in a public school), carries with it the very real risk of ostracism. Add a proven unsympathetic administrator to the mix, and the situation becomes downright untenable in a society with any respect whatsoever for religious freedom and the seperation of church and state.

Furthermore, Assembly of God Pastor Busch's attempt to pass blame for this incident onto a student is utterly reprehensible. A program such as The Seven Project so blurs the lines between religious and school activity that students are bound to be confused by what is and is not permissible. And, you know what, that's the whole point of these programs - to infiltrate public schools, making converts of the students. Busch admits as much saying the goal "was to reach out to unchurched kids."

Of course, The Seven Project is generally quite good at hiding this purpose. Its website for students is deliberately vague about its purpose, attempting to pass for an all-purpose on-line youth hang-out. It's website for school officials at least admits to the group's religious affiliation, though still in the vaguest terms possible and attempting to sell itself as teaching "traditional American values and the laws of our government" rather than religious material.

The one caveat:
While there is absolutely no religious content in the Seven Project school assemblies, there are evening festivals in the community that often include some religious content. In such cases, a proper disclaimer will be made so that those who would not wish to be affiliated with these festive gatherings may be made aware of the additional religious content.

Nevermind the social pressures that already make these corresponding, cross-purpose events highly objectionable. When these "evening festivals" are not just held in the community but in the school that already hosted the Seven Project assembly, any line between them is effectively destroyed.

That the Thedford school board and administration allowed this conflict of interest, inviting a church to take advantage of the public trust under the ruse of education, is a gross failure of duty to students and parents alike. That they are not willing to rectify, let alone apologize, for the situation is an even worse violation, especially when the only person taking any responsibility is an unnamed student labeled as "over-zealous" for doing what he considered right - doing out in the open what his church was doing by far more insidious means.

Note that government money went to pay for this program. Note, too, the deliberate confusion about who covered the other half of the cost - the principal suggesting it was the Assembly of God and the Pastor knowing better than to admit so. He can get away with it because, again, the church is using deceitful techniques that would make your common money-launderer proud. An imaginary line is constructed between the church and its services so they can make mockery of our constitution and further blur the lines serving as the foundation of our most cherished democratic principles.

This can not be tolerated. Public schools need not be free of religious expression when it is honestly students sharing their beliefs, but allowing organized religious entities to establish hold in this most sacredly secular of institutions is utterly un-American.

School boards have extended Zero Tolerance policies to include butter knives and wayward glances - it's time they do the same for religious indoctrination. And, if they will not, our legislators most certainly should.

Shall I hold my breath?


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