On December 20th, I reported that a Pagan, Ginger Strivelli, was challenging her son’s school in Buncombe County, North Carolina on allowing the distribution of Bibles, claiming that the manner of distribution crossed the line into unconstitutional endorsement. Strivelli, and noted North Carolina Pagan activist Byron Ballard, decided they would test the supposedly open-door policy for the distribution of religious materials as asserted by principal Jackie Byerly of North Windy Ridge school.
“Jackie Byerly, principal at North Windy Ridge, defended the availability of the Bibles. She said they were not handed out, and students had the option to take them. She checked with Superintendent Tony Baldwin and was given permission to make them available. She said the Bibles arrived Monday morning from a local group of Gideons International, and the box containing the books was opened in the main office. Byerly said the students picked them up during their break time. “If another group wishes to do the same, I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this,” she said.”
So, how did North Windy Ridge school do when presented with boxes of Pagan literature free for the taking? According to Ballard, their tune had suddenly changed when it came to non-Biblical text distribution.
“We were there to deliver the materials that she was assured would be “made available” in the same way the Gideon material was, right before the winter break. No surprise to find that, in consultation with the system’s superintendent Dr. Baldwin, the principal Jackie Byerly and asst principal Danny Fusco couldn’t do that at all because the central office was reviewing its policy regarding religious materials in schools. They suggested that they would “hold onto” the books, in case the school system needed to review them for appropriate content, once the policy was vetted.”
Local news outlets are now reporting on the sudden change of heart, with the Asheville Citizen Times getting Jan Blunt, spokeswoman for Buncombe County Schools, to entertain the idea that perhaps their method of distributing Bibles in a public school wasn’t altogether legal after all.
“This whole thing has raised an issue of were we in compliance with any laws or were we not,” Blunt said. “There’s a lot of gray area. Perhaps we were in the wrong, and that’s why we’re going to review.”
Blunt also noted that a group in New York offered to send them 500 Qurans, and that feedback on their policy has been “mixed.” As for Ginger Strivelli and Byron Ballard, they are vowing to continue fighting and see this through till the end.
“The Earth religions community is frankly tired of dealing with this every few years. As long as any child in a public school system is bullied, coerced or ostracized for the spiritual path of their family and themselves, the situation is not fixed and the school environment is not safe. There will be more media, more “good Christian” people threatening violence, more bullying and “othering” before this is settled. But settled it will be. Of this you can be certain.”
Again and again it seem like certain Christian activists love the idea of inserting religion into the public sphere until it’s made plain that other, competing, ideas will be allowed as well. Then, the value of secularism suddenly reveals itself, at least until the law, or the demographics, change enough to allow them complete religious hegemony. Pagans (and other minority religions) it seems, are either being invoked to test the resolve of supposedly “open” programs of religious activities that receive governmental funding, or used to prove how open a program is to avoid litigation. As non-Christian practices and beliefs become more and more common, I think we’ll start to see some realignment on the question of religion in public school or local government, until then, local Pagans continue to fight for true equal treatment and inclusion.