Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem

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.


  1. I am a proud citizen of the USA which allows freedom OF religion, not FROM religion. I'm so sorry for your family and children. I pray that you come to know your Maker before it's too late. Prayers are being said for you all over the area.

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  3. This is an amazing blog. It's amazing how quickly a persons opinion of you can change just because you choose rationality. I think that you're brave for raising your children this way. Even if you have to face condescending comments like the one from Mr. Anonymous up above.

  4. Thanks for the positive words, David.

  5. Our schools are full of acceptance of everything except christinity. Why are people so eager to remove the good things out of our public schools and replace them with negative surroundings? Schools would be in alot better shape if God was put back into the public school system, the way they started out!

  6. I fail to see how neutrality on matters of religion translates to "negative surroundings." Our Constitution is a secular one, prohibiting government endorsement of religion but allowing for personal religious freedom. Don't you think parents should be able to decide what, if any, religion they want to transmit to their children? Or would you prefer to live in a theocracy, confident that your specific brand of religion will always be the exact one favored by the government (and its schools)? If you lived in a predominantly Mormon area of the U.S., would you want the Book of Mormon being taught in your children's school? How about Scientology? As for your claims that schools would be better "if God was put back," you have no evidence to stand on. The fact is that the most religious states in the U.S. have the highest rates of murder, poverty, and teen pregnancy, and the lowest rates of educational attainment. A recent study also showed that religious people as a whole are less motivated by compassion than are atheists and agnostics. And in cases where "putting God back" in public schools means replacing real science with creationism, schools certainly end up much worse.

    1. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
      To me this means that governments cannot require people to be members of certain religions and shall not persecute or discriminate against those that are in their chosen religion.
      The Gideons are only freely offering bibles. I have never seen any of them force a bible on anyone. One is simply able to say "No thank you" without cursing the Gideons as is sadly happening at my university. If a Muslim, or Mommon, or Satanic, or Atheist group may freely pass out brochures or books, why do so many feel so angry to see the Gideons on campus?
      I am replying as Anonymous, because I was just yesterday ridiculed for my beliefs.

    2. I don't see a problem with the Gideons offering bibles in public areas, such as designated "free speech" areas on public university campuses. At the same time, people on these campuses have a right to use their free speech to ridicule religious ideas. I have witnessed people ridiculing Mormon ideas on campuses, by the way, as well as the ideas put forth by several fundamentalist preachers.

      The situation I am addressing here in Muhlenberg County originally involved the Gideons distributing bibles during instructional time in a public elementary school. Students were not only invited to come forward to take a bible, they were subjected to a short talk about the bible's merits. Public school attendance is compulsory, which means the students were LITERALLY a captive audience. The courts have addressed, in several different rulings, the fact that children naturally assume that people who address them in their classrooms represent the official views of the school. Can you not see, in any way at all, how this is problematic?

      The Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the Constitution. The decisions surrounding religion in public schools are based on many different courts, acting over decades. Folks like David Barton have gained fame by claiming that our nation's founders never intended for there to be separation of church and state, but the evidence simply does not bear this out. Barton has been thoroughly discredited by real historians, but not before influencing lots of Americans who find solace in his untruthful arguments because they fit in nicely with what they are hearing from the pulpit.

    3. You do realize you live in America, don't you?
      There is a high rate of poverty,murder, and other crimes in third world countries, where "religion" is forced on people.Yes, we do have crime here to, but it's not because of religion. When you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, you have true liberty,peace, and happiness.We are not perfect, but we are complete thru Him. Where are the athiest in this New York tragedy? The main ones helping now are the Christians. You can't convince me that Christians aren't the most compassionate people on this earth! America was founded on the principles of God, if you can't live with that, find a country who doesn't believe that. We don't hate, but we have a right to stand up for what our forefathers gave thier lives for, and what we still believe today.

    4. Did you know that a theist, particularly one with a "relationship with Christ" is 40 times more likely to go to prison than an atheist? I'd post a link but I'm on my phone. Search prison population by religious denomination and see for yourself. It makes me wanna go to church! I guess not having to be responsible for your own sins kinda makes people less responsible...

  7. There are so many problems w/our school system as you have pointed out on another post. Even if I felt the Gideons were some ominous threat to the school system, aren't there more pressing issues that threaten our schools? I remember in the 3rd grade when we would sing, "This land is made for you and me." I doubt the Native Americans would've agreed with that. The public schools are funded by the government (tax payers). They try to instill a misguided sense of nationalism in them while they are young. The school itself was probably built over the unmarked graves of African slaves. You can refuse Christianity, or any other religion, but what is the moral compass we offer to young people? Is it really so bad to "Love thy neighbor as thyself" or to "not kill or steal"? I realize so-called Christianity has been used as a vehicle to attain power. That does not mean that its tenant are inherently wrong. Without the concept of God, who or what is the final authority? You? Me? Whatever government jurisdiction that may exist at the moment? If there is no higher power, where does authority originate? I would suspect with whoever has the most power. I am in no way trying to sway your opinion. I would just like to know more about atheism. Sincerest thanks for reading my post.

    1. Bryce, thank you for reading, and for asking some thoughtful questions. I'll do my best to answer them succinctly.

      Yes, there are many trends in public schools that concern me. I'd say my biggest concern is the increased use of programs and policies that teach students to obey reflexively, rather than to develop critical thinking skills. This is why I find Character Counts! and similar character education programs to be misguided at best, and why I find the pervasive use of rewards and punishments for everything to be problematic. But I think that the increasing power of the religious right is also a real threat to our public schools (as well as our entire political process), and that the Gideons' efforts to proselytize to public school children must be viewed in that context. Many evangelicals would like to implement bible indoctrination as part of the public school curriculum, eliminate the teaching of evolution and other important scientific concepts, and teach a version of U.S. history proposed by David Barton, an evangelical darling who has been discredited by serious historians. How many violations should we overlook before declaring a serious problem?

      If I understand you correctly, your second question seems to be whether we can be good without a god. My personal experience is that abandoning the faith of my childhood has not led me to commit murder or steal. Frankly, I worry about people who feel that the only thing holding them back from evil acts is the fear of burning in hell. There is an emerging body of evidence pointing to the evolutionary advantage of certain altruistic behaviors--you might want to look into that.

      I would argue that without a god, we judge actions based on the harm, or lack of harm, they cause sentient beings. This is why atheists as a group tend to support gay rights; we don't see how the things consenting adults do in their bedrooms can possibly be a threat to us.

      The ten commandments contain some good precepts, such as not killing and stealing, but I think as a definitive list we could do much better. For example, consider how much violence the prohibition against blasphemy has incited. And while it is generally good to honor one's father and mother, sometimes it is not, and entire systems of abusive "discipline," such as that advocated by Michael and Debbie Pearl, are based on this commandment.

      Because you say you would like to know more about atheism, I highly recommend Sam Harris' The End of Faith for an overall look at the question of authority and moral compass.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  8. There are facts that will never be changed regardless of any individual's acceptance or denial of God. Throughout the world all cultures have formed religious institutions and beliefs that have attempted to establish ethical behavior in individuals and our societies. And in the name of religion both good and evil have been accomplished. That is true for all other social institutions as well, but shall we try to say, "Let's eliminate the institutions of government? Education? Marriage & family?" The list could be endless, and good and evil are present in all mankind as well as our institutions. But what laws do we have in our democracy that are not linked in someway to religious laws? Few I think. That does not mean we force religious views on others, but it is past time for us to play dead to our religious beliefs
    and allow nonbelievers to think they have the right to intrude on the rights of believers. Americans should be satisfied and thankful to be able to practice whatever it is they believe in their personal lives
    and leave others alone who disagree with them. Yes, many forms of ignorance and prejudice still
    exists, but it seems Christians are often today being bullied and considered mean and hateful for simply
    refusing to agree with things that are against their religious teachings. It just saddens me to see that
    we can't see more love and respect for others even in our differences. As imperfect as religion may
    still be, I believe it is the very foundation of all other institutions in all civilizations throughout all ages of
    time. And in respect to the influence it has always had in all cultures, the history/social studies teachers would not be doing their job if they avoid the topic of religion in the classroom. No, that doesn't mean "A" religion or influence of any particular belief should be taught in school, but to eliminate religion from historical events and influences is impossible. As far as my personal decision, the Bible says God is love. I will not separate the two, and it is my desire and hope that I can continue
    to increase my love for others regardless of differences. And I can understand the rejection of religion in general when people of the same Christian faith can use the same Bible and establish so many different denominations that have been extremely judgmental of one another. That in itself is against biblical teachings. All Christians have the duty to study to show themselves approved and judge themselves that they be not judged. Much negative Christian influence does come from church attendees who are not necessarily following the instructions of the Bible. But that does not mean that The Church of true believers are not accomplishing great things in our communities. For the power of true love is above all other forces. Christianity is a choice, and like democracy, it is the basis for the freedoms we all have that others before have given their lives to attain. Let's acknowledge and respect that fact whether our choice is to be a Christian or an atheist. If our goals are to make life better for ourselves and others, then we need not fear those who are pursuing the same goal with different means.