Though my kids don't attend our local public schools, I care about what goes on in them. I think our public schools should be pleasant places that encourage critical thinking, individualized learning, democratic participation, and compassion. I'm concerned about some trends in our Muhlenberg County schools, including their growing resemblance to minimum security prisons (requiring high school students to submit to drug testing in order to participate in school clubs, for example; and specifying that kindergarten students hold their hands behind their backs and "walk two white squares from the brown squares" when moving through the halls). I'm also concerned about the lengths to which some of our school officials seem willing to go to keep Christian proselytizing alive in our district.
Last fall, the Muhlenberg County School District received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a watchdog group for the separation of church and state, complaining that the Gideons had visited Longest Elementary fifth-grade classrooms to distribute bibles to the students and to urge them "to read and learn from the bible." The FFRF had been notified of the Gideons' visit by a parent of one of the fifth-grade students.
Superintendent Dale Todd distanced himself and the Longest Elementary principal from the questionable activities, claiming in his written response to the FFRF attorney that "the principal was at a conference that day and not present at the school." Todd also assured the FFRF attorney that he had "instructed all schools to not allow members of the Gideons International organization to come into the school and distribute Bibles on school property." However, Todd later indicated to the local newspapers (whose archives are not available online for me to link to them) that he and the school board approved of the Gideons visiting classrooms; in fact, the visits were described as a longstanding tradition that neither Todd nor the school board wanted to end. Todd explained that the only reason for doing so was that the attorney for the school district had assured them a legal fight would be expensive and nearly impossible to win.
Some local residents grumbled. In the months that followed, one unhappy resident (who likely never read The Handmaid's Tale) wrote an op-ed letter blaming separation of church and state for a variety of social ills. Another started a petition that showed a distressing ignorance of the constitutional issues at hand. But the golden age of bible distribution in Muhlenberg County public schools seemed to be over.
Naturally, I was surprised to notice that the minutes from the May 14, 2012 Muhlenberg County Board of Education Meeting included unanimously-approved "plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization." Would the board of a school district recently in hot water for violating the Establishment Clause make its support of the Gideons' mission a matter of public record?
Because the person who initiated the motion is no longer a member of the school board, I decided to contact board member Don Richey, who had seconded the motion. I tried to obtain Richey's email address from the district office, only to learn from the board secretary that district policy didn't permit her to give it out. She suggested I call Richey at his home number.
I called Richey and identified myself by name, noting that I was a citizen who liked to keep up with what was going on in our schools. I asked Richey about the minutes from the May 14 meeting, reading verbatim the portion of the minutes that mentioned the Gideons.
Richey said of the motion, "As I recall, that was about our position, which is now that everyone should have equal opportunity. Any group that wants to can pass out materials at a designated time."
I asked if by "designated time" he meant a specific event put together for the sole purpose of giving groups an opportunity to distribute materials.
"No, no," he said. When pressed for examples, he said that such times might be Reading Nights at the schools, or the upcoming Open Houses before fall semester begins.
I asked if some kind of announcement would be made about this, and Richey said no, that groups would be allowed if they requested ahead of time to participate. He said that bible distribution would no longer take place "during class time."
I asked if by "any group," the board meant religious groups specifically.
Richey responded, "No, no--any group." When asked if the board might object to some of the groups wanting to distribute material, Richey didn't answer the question. Instead he said, "The law's the law. We're about equal opportunity now." He repeated that bibles would no longer be distributed in class.
One wonders why, if the Muhlenberg County Board of Education is truly interested in "equal opportunity," it is producing meeting minutes that speak specifically of "collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization."
I sent an email to Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to explain the district's current policy on the distribution of materials by the Gideons and other groups. I will share his response when I receive it.