Public schools continue to be a battleground for evangelicals, and not just on the subject of evolution. The issue of which books are fit for public schools can cut both ways, geographically. In Lake Wales, Florida, according to reports in the Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland, Florida, Ledger, the mother of a nine-year-old girl tried to ban six novels written by two-time Newbery Award-winner Lois Lowry from all Polk County elementary school libraries. Kristi Hardee, a part-time church secretary, said her daughter chose to read Anastasia Krupnik.When she found some ‘bad’ words in it, she told her teacher, who then told her mother. Hardee called the book “vulgar,” and at one point she said she checked it out of the library so no one else could read it (so much for the marketplace of ideas). In February of 2005, Hardee and her supporters, including her father-in-law, the Rev. Kenneth Hardee, of Lake Region Baptist Church, succeeded in getting the book removed from her daughter’s Spook Hill Elementary School. The pastor told the school board that, while he realized everyone has rights, “I also realize that within those rights, we as Christians have rights.” But the county school board refused to remove the other five books from elementary schools in the county. Jacqueline Rose, the senior coordinator for the county’s school library system, opposed any removal, noting that in the previous twenty-four years forty books had been challenged by individual school library committees, and only three had been banned.
Far to the north, on both sides of the Delaware River, Christian parents
claimed they were discriminated against in their children’s schools. In eastern Pennsylvania, Donna Busch said that other parents in her son’s kindergarten class at Culbertson Elementary School were able to read from their children’s favorite books during ‘Me Week.’ But when her son chose the Bible as his favorite book, Busch was prohibited from reading four verses from the book of Psalms. In Medford, New Jersey, a first-grade student was not permitted to read to his class from The Beginners Bible. (The boy’s position in that case was supported by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge named Samuel Alito.) In other cases around the country, students claimed they were not allowed to bring Bibles to school and read them on their own time. Christian legal groups like Liberty Counsel were quick to come to their aid, with frequent success. The issue extends to higher education. Although California State University at San Bernardino allows religious organizations like Hillel, whose membership is limited to Jews, in December of 2005 the school’s administration blocked a group of Christian students from forming a campus group because membership would be restricted on the basis of religious beliefs and
Other issues in Sunbelt schools, where evangelicals are often the overwhelming majority, are more a matter of substance than symbolism.
In 1993, in rural Pontotoc, Mississippi, Lisa Herdahl objected to a half-century practice of prayer, Bible study, and other religious activities in the elementary school where three of her six children attended. These included student-led morning prayers over the school’s intercom; prayer meetings in the gym; prayers in classes before lunch; and Bible classes led by teachers selected and paid by local churches. Herdahl said that when she objected to school officials, she was rebuffed. One child was given earphones to block the sound, while others were escorted from class during religious activities. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, Herdahl brought suit in federal district court, where in 1996 Judge Neal Biggers Jr. outlawed all of the school district’s practices except for voluntary morning prayer in the gym. “The Bill of Rights was created to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority,” he wrote in his decision. The ruling did not protect Herdahl from losing her job, social isolation, and what she said were mailed death threats. The Pontotoc County superintendent of public schools, Jerr Horton, called the ruling “a setback for religious freedom,” and Mississippi Republican elected officials denounced the decision. Before the case was decided, more than three thousand local residents rallied at the county courthouse for a ‘God and Country’ rally, an event organized by area church leaders and students.
In middle and high schools in the Sunbelt, Jews and others have complained that assemblies, advisors, and teachers were involved in aggressive, even coercive proselytizing, sometimes resulting in heated confrontations. In extreme cases, youth ministers representing groups like Young Life and Student Venture were invited onto the campus during the school day to evangelize, some roaming the cafeterias in the guise of “counselors.” Mandatory assemblies featured evangelical performances by organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. This atmosphere of religious permissiveness was the result of both lawsuits and governmental guidelines instituted under the Clinton administration. “The result has been the greatest amount of religious expression in public schools in our nation’s history,” said Jay Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group, financed by Pat Robertson, that argued many of the cases. In 1995, officials at Lake Mary High School outside of Orlando received a report that a youth minister from a local church had approached several non-Christian students and used harsh words during his lunchtime evangelism. As a result, the Seminole County school district sharply restricted such visits, issuing a memo that outlined “a far more cautious position regarding equal access” to campuses. In 1996, at nearby Lake Brantley High School in Seminole County, several parents complained that a teacher delivered Christian testimony in class. Students were invited to her home for a voluntary review of class work, after which she would lead a Bible study group. “It wasn’t a formal thing,” said Ned Julian, attorney for Seminole County schools, “but we suggested to her that you can’t do that in your role as public school teacher in a public school classroom, and that was the end of it.”
Another touchy situation can occur when teachers and administrators
in middle and high schools wear T-shirts in their classes and offices proclaiming Christian faith. At Poinciana High School in Kissimmee, Florida, the principal briefly banned teachers and staff members from wearing T-shirts of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a campus club with chapters in nearly eighty central Florida high schools, on Friday ‘Spirit Days.’ After negotiations with Liberty Counsel, a Maitland, Florida-based organization much like Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice, the teachers and administrators were permitted to wear the T-shirts, with ‘Champions in Christ’ on the front and a New Testament verse on the back. Poinciana principal Michael Brizendine issued a memo explaining that the shirts “are purely the private expression of that teacher or staff member and do not reflect the policy of or the endorsement from the high school.” It may be legal for teachers to wear such T-shirts in class, but some question whether it is appropriate for authority figures. Cliff McInturff, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, said he thought wearing such a shirt represents “an inappropriate intrusion of religious belief in the classroom. The teacher is modeling a religious belief in a very overt way. It’s too close to a subtle form of instruction.” In September of 2005, the principal of Boca Raton High School credited the rise in his school’s state rating from a C to an A to prayers of Christian groups around the country. The previous year the principal, Geoff McKee, had been criticized for referring to God in meetings with teachers. I reported many of these public school evangelism stories as fairly and dispassionately as I could, and I think I was successful. Yet I could not help thinking that those in the Christian majority — if they had stopped to think about it — might not have been so arrogant and insensitive if they had any experience as a religious minority. Perhaps if they had spent some time in a school or society dominated by Mormons, Muslims, or Jews who assumed that theirs was the one true faith, they might have behaved differently.