Meanwhile, outside the walls of PantheaCon, I have been busy tending the Wild Hunt’s hearth fires and watching the news….
The sheer number of stories describing the intersection of faith and public education has been overwhelming in recent weeks. In fact, Americans United (AU) believes that 2013 will be a “pivotal year for church-state separation.” According to AU, the country’s increasing religious diversity and the recent failures of evangelical Christian politics are fueling the fight to force religion back into public schools.
Since January, five states already have anti-evolution bills “in play” including, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma and Indiana. AU writer Simon Brown remarked, “The mantra of Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) seems to be: ‘Darn the Constitution, full speed ahead!’”
Just last week, the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District for refusing to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School. The School Board’s justification for non-compliance was that the portrait was a gift. However, there’s that darn Constitution again. Now, the Jackson City School Board is being sued.
There are similar cases across the country. Whether it’s Creationism, school prayer, religious displays or school vouchers, the challenges continue. As such, it is very easy to get caught up in the contentious discourse surrounding these cases. From a media perspective, conflicts are considered more “ sell-able” because they stir emotions and keep us tuned-in. The positive outcomes are often quite boring.
As a result, we forget to adequately acknowledge these “happy-endings” or record the positive gains. When one battle ends, another always seems to flare up. It’s much easier to watch the new fires than see the sprouts rising through the ashes of old battles.
However, I have and will always argue that it is essential for all of us, especially those on the front lines, to purposefully acknowledge positive progress; no matter how small, how subtle or how utterly boring. Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the opportunity to do an “end-zone” victory dance and fly a flag or two. With that in mind, I’d like to update two stories that involved challenges to liberty within the public schools.
Let’s start in the South. One of last year’s top ten stories was the struggle to protect religious freedom within the Buncombe County School (BCS) system of North Carolina. This was the case that began when Ginger Strivelli, a local Pagan mother, challenged the presence of Gideon Bibles in her daughter’s school. Over multiple contentious meetings, the school board finally enacted policies that would ostensibly prevent any First Amendment violations and, in addition, would pave the way for interfaith talks.
During the early days of this case, I worked as Lady Liberty League’s Media Adviser. As such, I have written numerous case reports and articles; the last of which was just published in Circle Magazine’s latest issue (#112). That article contains the full scope of the Board’s newly enacted policy changes.
Here are some of the highlights. The Buncombe County School Board (BCS) has created a Faith-Based Advisory panel to act as consultant for all faith-based issues. Local Pagan, Byron Ballard, who has been actively involved in this case, now sits on that panel. In addition, the Board encouraged all teachers to celebrate National Religious Freedom Day on January 16th. On the first of January, the Board formally announced this intention and stated that all children will watch the newly produced BCS program called: “The 3Rs of Religion.”
Byron has confirmed that the overall progress has continued to be very positive. In fact, for the first time in a year, Byron will not be attending the Buncombe County School Board meeting. We are witnessing the evolution of a community and recognition of social change. However Byron did add:
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the relationship with the county school system, but I am aware that it will have to be monitored forever after. Vigilance, like strong fences, makes for good neighbors.”
Buncombe County’s story may not yet be fully written.
Now, let’s move over to Utah. In November, I reported on the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Davis School District in Utah. One of its schools, Windridge Elementary, had restricted access to the book In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polocco because of its depiction of gay marriage. The restriction was initially supported by the district and encouraged for all lower grades. In November, the advisory council stated, “Members of our Community Council feel that the book is non-offensive, but agree that it should be restricted. It can be found behind the Librarians desk.” Shortly thereafter, parent Tina Weber challenged the legality of the decision which resulted in the ACLU’s lawsuit.
On January 31, the ACLU reported that the Davis School Board has reversed that 2012 decision and put Our Mothers’ House back on all library shelves. In a letter to the Board’s legal adviser Assistant Superintendent, Pamela Park wrote, “I agree with and support the Committee’s conclusion regarding the book as follows:
- “Removing the book completely is not a good option.”
- “We all know many non-traditional families” with students attending our schools.
- “It could help those children in same-sex families see their family in a book.”
- “[T]his book teaches acceptance and tolerance.”
- “The book could help prevent bullying of kids from same-sex families.”
- “It could be used by families to discuss the issues….”
Park also confirmed that the book’s presence does not violate Utah educational policies because it’s not used as instructional material. She continues to advise that any parent who feels the book is inappropriate can contact the librarian and have the book restricted from his or her child only. You can read the letter in its entirety here.
The Utah case wasn’t necessarily a church-state issue. The school was restricting Patricia Polocco’s freedom of speech more than violating religious liberty. However, it could be argued that the case did have a religious freedom element. The Board restricted the book based on what could be considered a faith-based opinion. It’s opponents complained that In Our Mothers’ House “normalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.” Removing the book on such a basis promotes one faith’s value system over another. Facilitating parental choice supports the values of all people; no matter their religion or position on gay marriage.
Celebrating the work done in both Utah and North Carolina, and other similar cases, does not at all detract from the serious nature of defending First Amendment freedoms allowed by the darn Constitution. Nor does it show disrespect for those cases not yet closed. Acknowledging progress strengthens our spirit and allows us to stand again. It restores our faith in the American system. We need this time to breathe.
So, in honor of the work done by those in Buncombe County and Davis County, “Way to Go!” Take your victory lap.