The Superintendent responded to my letter of complaint about the Board of Education's plans to bring the Gideons back into Muhlenberg County Schools under a revised policy. The main points conveyed in his letter are that 1) the Board of Education believes its new policy is protected by the district's "Community Use of School Facilities" agreement; 2) the Board will allow any nonprofit group to distribute literature at designated school functions, even if doing so results in controversy; 3) the Board has no plans to put the new policy in writing, or to take any steps to make the public aware of it, since the press already attends Board meetings.
What puzzles me about the Superintendent's response is that the district's "Community Use of School Facilities" agreement, which is supposed to justify the new policy, seems only to set forth the conditions under which nonprofit groups can rent school facilities during non-school hours. It would, in fact, be constitutionally permissible for the Board to rent district facilities to the Gideons, during times the district isn't using them. (And if the district rents its facilities out to any community groups, it must not discriminate against groups simply because they are religious.) But that is not what the new policy, as explained by the Board and Superintendent, is about. The new policy is about allowing the Gideons to distribute literature at official school functions such as open houses and reading nights. The distinction is not a small one.
I'm also dissatisfied with the Board's unwillingness to put in writing, and announce, its new policy.
Doing so would actually offer the district some measure of protection by making it clear that the policy is not being amended on a case-by-case basis to include or exclude certain groups. And if the Board's intent is to establish a constitutionally defensible open forum, in which various religious and non-religious viewpoints are represented, then the boundaries of the forum need to be better defined. It remains unclear if all school-sponsored events are included, or just open houses and reading nights. What about basketball games and other sporting events? Will nonprofit representatives be confined to a table, or permitted to circulate among students? As I've said before, refusing to clarify these issues gives the impression that perhaps the Board doesn't want those with religious viewpoints different from the Gideons to know that the forum exists.
I want readers to know that I am sticking with this, although it might be a while before I have anything new to report. I also want to answer two questions that have reached me, in slightly different forms, through numerous channels--including the comments section of this blog.
Q: If your children aren't in school, why do you care if the Gideons are there distributing bibles?
A: Liberal homeschooling parents have been accused--most notably by Slate columnist Dana Goldstein--of withdrawing much-needed support and involvement from our nation's public schools. What kind of citizen (or human being) would I be if I didn't care what goes on in the schools simply because my children don't attend them? As I said in my first post on the subject, I am particularly concerned about recent trends that infringe on students' civil liberties. While the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause guarantees freedom of religion, the Establishment Clause offers citizens protection from state-sponsored religion. Because these two clauses work together to provide Americans with tremendous religious freedom compared to other countries, the cause I am taking up does not belong solely to atheists. I admire the work of Americans United, an organization made up of American citizens of various faiths and "dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all." The organization is headed by the Reverend Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Another reason I am voicing my concerns is that I recognize the many ways in which speaking out against religious proselytizing in the schools is a risky proposition. Many who share my concerns will not speak out for fear they will be socially ostracized and harassed, or even lose their jobs. I also think it's a good idea for people to identify the cause of church-state separation with a local citizen, as it helps to dispel the myth that challenges to state-sponsored religion are always the work of "outside agitators." It seems too easy for some to ignore the fact that the reason local fifth-graders aren't still receiving bibles (and an exhortation to read them!) during instructional time is that a local parent of a fifth-grader reported the violation, albeit anonymously.
Finally, in justifying my interest in the district's handling of the Gideons, it seems ridiculous that I should have to point out the fact that I am a taxpayer. Our public institutions--including libraries, roads, parks, and schools--belong to all of us.
Q: What if you are wrong in your disbelief, and hell is a real, terrible place? Aren't you concerned about your and your children's salvation?