Friday, November 23, 2012

My Freethought Radio Interview, and a Memorable School Board Meeting

Last weekend, I was interviewed on Freethought Radio, a program hosted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.  We talked about the Muhlenberg County Schools' literature distribution policy, going all the way back to last fall when the FFRF convinced the board of education to end its practice of allowing members of the Gideons International to distribute bibles to fifth-graders during instructional time.  I recalled the details of my discovery that the board had, at its May 14 meeting, unanimously voted "to approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization," and my failed attempts to convince the board to prohibit all outside groups from distributing literature to students.  I explained my decision to request, along with the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance, a presence at afterschool events (as long as the Gideons were permitted access), and described our experience "tabling" at Muhlenberg High School (which I also wrote about in my last post).

The Freethought Radio podcast is now available here.  I'm sorry about the hiss in the background, and I'm going to ask the FFRF tech folks if something can be done about it. 

In other news, at the Muhlenberg County Board of Education's November 12 meeting, Western Kentucky University SSA president and Muhlenberg North High School graduate Walter Petit asked the board to end its practice of opening meetings with prayer, and to close afterschool events to all outside groups.  While a portion of Petit's remarks made the evening news and the local papers, some interesting and important details of the meeting were omitted.

First, the meeting was opened with a prayer, led by board member Jerry Winters, that may have been the most sectarian and divisive prayer in board history.  The idea seemed to be to throw in the word "Christian" as often as possible, and to imply that anyone opposed to prayer at meetings could not possibly care about the children of Muhlenberg County as much as Winters.

Second, while SSA's Walter Petit was still at the podium after addressing the board, Winters stated, "If I had things my way, we wouldn't even be teaching that we come from monkeys and lizards!"  So there you have it: at a board meeting during which the importance of getting students "college ready" was frequently mentioned, a member of the board of education expressed his desire to remove the teaching of evolution from the science curriculum. 

Without missing a beat, Petit responded that Winters' statement revealed "such scientific ignorance" that he had no business serving on a board of education.  I think that the Kentucky Science Teachers Association--whose Position Statement on Evolution readers may want to check out for themselves--would agree.


  1. In an earlier blog you wrote, "I think our public schools should be pleasant places that encourage critical thinking, individualized learning, democratic participation, and compassion." Which is a statement I can fully support. I also agree with your view of keeping religious entities out of our schools, though I would include non religious ones as well. It is not up to our schools to instill religious values, as that is the parent's responsibility, along with the responsibility of religious institutions the parents send their children too for such training. It is also not the schools responsibility to downplay or reject the importance or validity of religion in a child's or adult's life. That includes presenting religious beliefs or materials as fairy tales equivalent to Roman religious beliefs. If a teacher or administrator wish to influence children they simply need to live by their values and daily demonstrate their commitment to their faith by their actions within the school environment. This does not mean I would forbid students from forming groups with a religious theme. I do support student led groups, as they are as much of a support group for students attempting to find and connect with like-minded students.
    I think you failed, however, when you supported the call for Mr. Winters removal from the School Board. He is a good man and he was elected by a democratic process as an individual who met all the qualifications to become a member of the school board. You state in your blog that you think our students should support the democratic process, yet you wish to remove a person from a position based upon his belief structure. The question one needs to ask in this regard is as follows: "Has Jerry Winters ever used his influence to stop the teaching of evolution within Muhlenberg County Schools?" "Has Jerry Winters ever did anything within our school system to impose his belief structure on students while attending school?" The answer is No. Because you do not like a particular belief does not disqualify them from serving. Of course, just because I disagree with some of your beliefs does not disqualify you from serving, assuming you can get the votes.
    Part I See next entry C.W. Riley II

  2. Part II C.W.Riley II
    When I vote for a person for office, I want a person who has positive belief structure and a good sense of ethics. I admit that I favor Christians and people with similar beliefs to myself, but just as important is electing a person with ethics. I want a person with a sense of fair play and one that will not impose his or her will on others, even if in the end they have the ability to do so. Jerry Winters is such a man and calls for his ouster are not warranted. In regards to the prayer issue. Opening the board with a prayer is not a Jerry Winter's idea. It is a tradition. It is not meant to be exclusionary. Now I realize that the appellate court in Ohio has ruled against school board prayer, but the supreme court has not yet ruled on the issue. Even if it does, actions by individual members of the school board are not board actions unless acted upon within an officially called meeting in which a quorum is in attendance. In a place such as Muhlenberg County, all that would occur, would be that various members of the board would meet with any public attendees and have a pre-session prayer that was not board endorsed. Fighting public prayer is like playing Mole in the Hole, you can beat it down but it will continue to pop up so long as you live in the bible belt.
    In summary, as a Christian, I do not disagree with your attempts to keep non-profits out of our school systems as there are many organizations, including groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Secular Student Alliance I would not want visiting our schools or trying to influence our students. If you open the door to one then you must open the door to all, so I also believe we must keep it closed. The school's only obligation is to teach that various groups exist in conjunction with their impact on our history or culture.
    C.W.Riley II

  3. Good for Walter Petit! I'm glad there are young people willing to stand up to older people in a position of authority on these matters. I bet you wanted to stand and cheer when he rebuked Jerry Winters.

    I think it is utterly appalling that we have people sitting on school boards around this country who want to stifle scientific education. It's no wonder America ranks so low in science given the fact that anti-intellectual fools try so hard to prevent basic biology from being taught adequately.

  4. To clarify, I am not calling for Mr. Winters' removal from the board. He lost his re-election bid. Nor am I saying that he fails to meet the legal qualifications for office. What I am saying is that voters should think carefully about electing school board candidates who indicate a desire to remove well-accepted scientific concepts from the curriculum. Either we are trying to promote scientific literacy in the schools or we are not. Kentucky's state science standards have already been criticized by scientists for diminishing the importance of evolution. What local students do not need is to have the teaching of important sceintific ideas eroded further.

    While school board prayer may not have been Mr. Winters' idea, he and the other school board members, who are charged with upholding relevant laws, should have known that it was unconstitutional. The Coles decision is thirteen years old at this point. You are correct that the Supreme Court has not ruled on the matter of school board prayer; however, you did not mention that the Supreme Court this very year (2012)denied certiorari on a similar case, Doe v. Indian River School District (2011), heard by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

    The school board also should have known about one of the leading federal court decisions regarding distribution of Gideon bibles in classrooms. The decision in Berger v. Rensselaer Central School Corporation (1993) is nearly two decades old, and the U.S. Supreme Court has let this decision stand.

    So I don't think it's accurate to say that Mr. Winters or the other board members have demonstrated a commitment to keeping their private religious views out of their roles as school board members.

    I also think your statement that "various members of the board" could "meet with any public attendees and have a pre-session prayer that was not board endorsed" represents a misunderstanding of how courts tend to view these sorts of practices. For example, you might want to look at how the word "sham" figures into the court's reasoning in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District (2000). I also have to say that the scenario you propose seems like an awful lot of trouble for board members. Couldn't they just pray in the car on the way to the meeting?

  5. I just wish I was at this board meeting, sounds rather interesting and a positive for FFRF

  6. As I stated I fully support not allowing non-profits into our schools, that includes the Gideon's, who also gave me a bible when I attended Greenville Elementary School. Overall your simply bucking traditions that has been in place for many years. Such traditions have not been given much thought in the past as no one has been determined to change them till you entered the community. To this point no one has considered such traditions harmful, and were supported by the overall community. Your intervention will change these traditions as people understand that to keep organizations, such as the ones you represent, out of our schools they must sacrifice the traditions they love.
    To address the comment that Mr. Winters and others have kept their religious views private, I never said this. I believe that Mr. Winters is a pastor, his views are very public. My statement is that they did not force their views on the students of our school system. In no way did these board members interfere with the teaching of science within our schools. As a Christian I see that the evolution of species is easily demonstrated. I do not subscribe to the belief that we descended from primates of course that is why it is called Evolution theory not evolution fact in regards to human ascent within nature. I feel there is nothing wrong with teaching evolution in schools, it is how I was taught in my secular education classes within Muhlenberg County Schools. In my religious education I was taught something different and I have chosen to make that "Leap of Faith", which is necessary, when embracing ones religion.
    Lastly, the prayer issue. Sham is a great word but it would not fit in this instance. People publically adhere to their faith in different ways. Not everyone, elected to the Muhlenberg county school board is religious, and some that are may fully support the separation from Church and State in broader areas than others. It could be that all board members may want to pray before a meeting, or it could be that only a few will want to pray. Prayer before a board meeting would not be a sham even if official prayer during a board meeting is prohibited. As to praying on the way to the meeting I am sure they will do so. However, if you are a religious person then Matthew 18:20 states: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." For many Christians this is important as they strive to make good decisions with solid foundations. C.W.Riley II

  7. C.W. Riley II: I appreciate your detailed and respectful articulation of your views. We clearly agree that keeping the door closed to outside groups wanting to distribute literature is the best policy. And we seem to agree that evolution has a place in science classrooms, though we have different ideas of just what that means.

    You are using the word "theory" in a lay person's sense of the word. In scientific terms, "theory" does not mean an unsupported hypothesis. Think of atomic theory, for instance, or the theory of plate tectonics. We have an abundance of evidence to support those theories. The same is true for evolution.

    I just want to add that I was not the first person to speak out against the distribution of Gideon bibles in the schools. The parent of a fifth-grader issued the initial complaint--anonymously, for reasons I understand better every day--more than a year ago. And I've heard from lots of other citizens of this community who also objected to the practice, but simply did not feel that they were in a position to speak up.

  8. In terms of Scientific Theory, I have to agree with you when you state that theory in science does not necessarily mean that various concepts are not proven and cannot be acted on as if fact, because indeed they are fact. Evolution as a science is evident in nature and to dismiss it is folly. The idea that organisms can evolve or change is pivotal to our understanding of the world, and to a large extent, our ability to change it ourselves.
    The word theory enters into the discussion as there are aspects of evolution we do not fully understand or cannot fully be shown. This leads to the possibility of error in some of our thinking in terms of evolution as well as discoveries that may also alter our thinking and conclusions in this field. If we had decided we knew everything about the nature of physical mass once we discovered the atom the field of Quantum Physics would not exist. The point is that when it comes to Human evolution the chain has not be fully established and it is only speculation as to the ultimate origins of man. For a scientist, it is within reason that enough evidence could be amassed over the next few years that we can show an unbroken chain such that, in regards to man, evolution would no longer be theory. However, the same scientist could discover that our current discoveries are dead ends as new evidence could show a new chain or simply render the past assumptions as invalid.
    To summarize my point the term evolution is simply too large to be placed in a true or untrue category. Evolution has a great many facets and these different facets must be presented to our students such that they can better understand our world, and perhaps, make it a better place. Of course I realize that some Christians believe that the world is 5,000 years old and that God simply placed the fossil record and its natural resources within the world at its creation. I do not believe this but if I did my viewpoint would be as follows. If God did make the world 5,000 years ago he still put systems in place to explain the world and allow us to make the world a better place, for us. It is incumbent upon us to understand these systems and follow God's directive that we be stewards of the earth. Evolution is one of those systems, as such, it needs to be studied.
    C.W.Riley II

  9. Suzanne, I support your tremendous strength and courage in fighting this fight to keep critical and scientific thought in the schools. And to struggle to keep mythology from being taught to the children in our schools as factual.
    There is no more important fight than this. If I can help your work in any way, you know how to reach me!



  10. Suzanne, I just listened to your interview and had to comment to tell you how rational and wonderful you sounded!
    I stand beside you completely, fighting the good fight!


  11. Suzanne, I very much appreciate all you are doing. As someone who has lived in Kentucky for almost three decades, and as a secular parent who homeschooled my children (who went on to college), I commend you on your courage and your articulate, poised, empathetic, and mature representation of all that is rational and fair. Again, thank you, and congratulations!