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for the week of April 28-May 5



Final polish given to school religion policy


blue01_next.gifBy Carolyn Cole/The Mustang News


Mustang Schools Religious Liberties Task Force approved Tuesday a policy proposal that will be presented to school board members during the board’s May 9 meeting.

The task force was created in January after community upheaval regarding the removal of a nativity scene from an elementary school play in December. The task force broke into subcommittees to write sections related to teacher training and curriculum, religious holidays, religious expression and a grievance policy. Earlier this month, members reviewed recommendations and forwarded their draft to Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, who spoke to the group in February as they started their religious liberties discussions. They reviewed Haynes’ suggestions Tuesday night, making revisions to the draft the task force will give to the school board for its consideration.

“I can’t imagine we will have that same kind of problem,” Superintendent Karl Springer said in reference to the upheaval related the nativity scene removal. “You guys have gone above the issues that we dealt with. Now we are dealing with finer issues to keep us out of trouble for a long time, I hope.”

Because 18 out of 30 committee members were present at the Tuesday night meeting, the group decided to e-mail absent members and ask them to sign off on the final draft at the school administration building by Wednesday, so the signatures could be submitted to the school board with the proposed policy.

Allowing the nativity

Many members said they were frustrated by how close the Lakehoma Christmas play was to complying with legal precedent. Through their research, the task force has determined that a religious depiction is allowed by law as long as it is given an educational context. For example, in the case of the nativity scene, if a narrator had began the scene by saying “Most Christians believe” and explained the nativity, it is believed the portrayal would have been within the boundaries of law.

Giving away Bibles at school

It has become a Mustang tradition for the Gideons to distribute Bibles to fifth-graders, a practice Haynes said is in conflict with recent court decisions.

“Bibles for years have been distributed at the fifth grade level and it’s been made pretty clear to us that’s probably not how we ought to be doing it,” Springer said.

He added a lower court decision has supported allowing religious literature to be handed out in passive ways at secondary schools, meaning setting up tables outside the office rather than handing out materials in classrooms. Springer suggested continuing to allow the Bible distribution, but moving it to the sixth grade level.

Co-Chair Dave Bryan asked the committee if they felt that would limit the Gideons’ work.

“Are you willing to sit in your circle of faith ... that yes we agreed we don’t want the Gideons to be at the elementary school,” Bryan asked.

Mustang Elementary School Principal Neil Womack responded, “I’m not willing to say I don’t want them, but I am willing to say it’s probably more appropriate at the secondary level.”

Kristin Cameron, an elementary student parent, said she agreed, adding if the Gideons are allowed to distribute Bibles to elementary students ,the district has to allow any other group to distribute literature to young children.

Valedictorian speech

Religious Liberty Task Force members have had heated discussions about whether a student speaker at graduation can ask the audience to pray.

At first they wrote this would be considered government-sponsored prayer, since the schools pay to put on the graduation ceremonies and have a captive audience of several thousand people.

Haynes wrote that the federal government has protected student speech and suggested the school district include a disclaimer in its commencement program.

Teacher neutrality

How a teacher responds to questions about their own faith can be a sticky area, task force members learned.

Before, Springer said teachers were encouraged to tell students they could talk to them about faith issues after class or tell students to ask their parents about issues of faith.

The proposed policy would allow teachers to tell students what faith they believe in.

Bryan asked what a teacher should do if a student asks what people of that faith believe.

“Have we not gone into an educational moment right here,” he said. “Isn’t that the whole point of what we are talking about, that we want to teach about religion not teach religion.”

Springer said, given the proper context, that would be appropriate. However he said the teacher cannot step past the bounds of explanation and advocate one religion. He said there was an issue in recent weeks at the high school where a student asked a substitute teacher about her faith — paganism — and it is believed by officials that in explaining her faith she crossed that line.

Cameron said it concerned her, especially on the elementary school level.

“They (teachers) have such an authority and influence in a child’s life,” she said.













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