Church & State clash in Salem Schools -Do teachers hand out religious fliers?
After our story about teachers directly distributing pamphlets for religious after-school clubs, the district’s position on the literature appears to remain open.
On February 13, 2012 Salem Weekly asked the district for complete clarification on this policy. We asked the following; 1) Does the Salem-Keizer School District have a specific policy about the distribution of Good News and other after-school religious club literature? 2) If so, what is it? 3) If not, are school principals allowed,at their own discretion, to personally hand out religious fliers or instruct willing staff to do it?*
In reply, Mr. Speck wrote us, “No, we don’t have a specific policy on that. Our practice is to let clubs distribute materials to students who are interested in the club. We do not wish to offend anyone by giving their child information about a club that they object to. The principal has the final say as to how student club materials are distributed in their school. The district guidance for principals is to urge them to think about ways in which the students can access the information if they are interested, but not to send materials with every student regardless of their interest in the club. Leaving a stack of materials on a table would work.”
The original story starts here:
Last April, Salem parent Lisa Godwin was concerned when her daughter received a pamphlet in school. Her daughter, who attends Brush College Elementary School, had been passed the pamphlet from her teacher’s hands and the brochure invited her to attend an After School Good News Club held weekly at the school. The Child Evangelism Fellowship, (CEF) who runs the program, advertised activities including “Bible stories, true life missionary stories,” and the teaching of “Rich Bible Lessons. “
Godwin grew alarmed, on constitutional grounds.
She learned that CEF missionaries gave the fliers to the school office, that the fliers were placed in teacher’s mailboxes by school staff and that they were finally disturbed in classes by teachers. Her concern was that public school staff handling religious literature on school property, and religious organizations meeting there, showed that her daughter was denied the protections of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… “
Godwin wrote the school’s principal, Lance Cooley. She stated that Good News clearly espoused an overt religious agenda to “impressionable kids.” She wrote, “I have no problem with kids, including mine, being exposed to various religions.” But she wondered, “why it’s allowed to have public school teachers distribute promotional fliers?” Principal Cooley, since retired, replied, essentially agreeing with her, saying that he disliked Brush College Elementary “appearing to endorse this program or any other outside program that is not directly associated with the school district.” He said he had not authorized the distribution of the fliers. He concluded, “This does not reflect our normal practice.”
Godwin then wrote to Salem-Keizer School District Superintendent, Dr. Sandy Husk, to object to the use of school property for the Good News Club in general. She quoted an excerpt from the CEF’s literature, “It is our goal to establish a Good News Club in every public elementary school in our district.” Godwin requested the Club be “denied permission to meet at… any Salem-Keizer public school.”
Dr. Husk refers Godwin back to Principal Cooley, saying she had “sent more information to Lance so that he is better equipped to help you understand the district’s policies.” When Godwin approached Cooley again, he cited an Oregon law (ORS332.172,) which mandates that public properties are required to give equal rights to “all religious denominations and political parties.” This meant Good News had the legal right to use school property for their meetings. But Cooley concluded his letter, “They do not have the right to recruit students for religious activities through schools. I assure you that we will not advertise their program or distribute their literature.”
When the new year began in September 2011, her daughter again received a Good News flier from her teacher’s hand so Godwin contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF,) an organization working to keep church and state separate. A FFRF attorney wrote Dr. Husk, arguing that distribution of fliers on school grounds goes against school’s “constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. When a school distributes religious literature… it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message.”
Jay Remy of the Salem-Keizer staff confirms that Dr. Husk received the letter from the FFRF, but that no policies were changed as a result of it. He suggests that Principal Cooley’s response (that the school should not distribute Good News literature) was the same as the district’s. That flier distribution to Godwin’s daughter only happened again because, in the transition to the replacement principal, “It fell through the cracks” and just wasn’t made clear to the new staff.
Child Evangelism Fellowship district director Betty Franz tells the Salem Weekly that she physically goes to the Salem-Keizer School District Superintendent’s office every fall to get permission for her group to distribute fliers. She receives written district approval each year allowing missionaries ( subject to individual principal approval,) enough fliers to hand out to each student in the school. Her document carries the stamp of Dr. Husk’s office.
CEF maintains that the First Amendment protects them, too. They say the Free Speech Clause forbids government (in this case, schools) from treating speech differently based on its viewpoint (in this case, religious rather than secular.) They say that Oregon law guarantees them the same fair treatment as any other after-school club who pays for school space. The law gives an after-school karate club and Good News the right to identical policies.