Last week, our top-read story was about the controversial evangelical group that conducted a seminar at Gheens Academy, part of Jefferson County Public Schools.
Louisville Area Christian Educator Support, or LACES, leased meeting space at Gheens. LACES is affiliated with Southeast Christian Church, and the seminar addressed how evangelicals can act as missionaries in the classroom. Which led to us getting a lot of emails.
Sensational news reports about the LACES meeting – not on Insider Louisville – led to teachers and administrators calling JCPS headquarters, “asking for clarity,” said Ben Jackey, JCPS communications specialist.
Several television stations reported LACES members telling teachers at the meeting that they are allowed to teach Creationism and Intelligent Design in the science classroom.
Dr. Donna Hargens, JCPS superintendent, was aware of some of the media reports, Jackey said, and decided to issue an internal JCPS statement to make sure there “are no gray areas,” he said.
As it would happpen, sources sent us that internal email:
Sent: Friday, May 10, 2013
Subject: Guidance on Religion in Public Schools
The event held last night in the Durrett Auditorium was sponsored by a group called Louisville Area Christian Educators (“ LACES”) and was not sponsored by the Jefferson County Public Schools.
JCPS, through the Board’s policy, allows community groups, religious and non-religious, to use district facilities after school hours. LACES completed the appropriate application for Facility Use.
We have received a number of questions and comments from the community regarding media reports about the content of the event. As a reminder regarding your obligations pursuant to the law, please review the attached documents.
This document states:
Public school employees are required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as public school employees.
· Public schools may teach students about religion in appropriate courses, such as World History and Literature; such studies are academic, not devotional.
· Creationism and Intelligent Design are not a part of the state science curriculum standards and are not taught.
· Students have a right to pray at school individually, or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive, and such prayer is not organized or led by staff.
The attached guidance covers a number of topics regarding religion in the public schools including activities that staff may engage in. In our next phase of Cultural Competency Training, we will be addressing these issues in greater depth with our administrators and teachers.
Donna M. Hargens, Ed.D.
Jefferson County Public Schools
VanHoose Education Center
In the Southeast’s newspaper, The Outlook, the story about LACES organizer and former assistant JCPS superintendent Joe Burks quotes Burks saying the meeting last week at Gheens was to focus on reaching students.
“The next generation is sitting in desks right now all over the community,” (Burks) said. “Public school may be the largest mission field we have, yet many Christian teachers have begun to lose their passion, calling and courage to be local missionaries. Cultural challenges, legal precedents and unclear guidelines have discouraged, confused and isolated teachers, diminishing their Christian witness.”
In a long interview with Insider Louisville, Burks said the Outlook article was misleading, and that LACES is meant to help Christian teachers not cross the legal line between their right to live their beliefs and overt proselytizing.
A number of IL readers wrote to us, stating they believe the recently passed Religious Freedom Act is the catalyst for the formation of the Southeast Christian-sponsored effort.
So, we called Southeast.
Michelle McGuffin, Southeast’s external media specialist did not immediately return calls for comment.
Activist Honi Goldman, who opposed the LACES outreach, said the JCPS guidelines from Hargens “look good on paper. But not only is there no enforcement mechanism, there’s no reporting mechanism.”
“If a teacher is (proselytizing) who steps in?” Goldman said:
If a child is uncomfortable with a teacher’s message, “How do parents complain? Where does the parent or guardian go? If another teacher steps in, how does that teacher report the problem without getting fired?”
Officials at the Jewish Community Relations Council also sent out an email to their Louisville constituency citing their concerns.
From that email:
Needless to say, this meeting, its content and proposed plan, which cross the line separating church and state, is quite problematic for us. We have been in contact with JCPS and the Jefferson County School Board and have been assured that JCPS and their leadership were surprised about the content of this meeting, and in no way endorse it. We are hopeful that the agenda laid out at this meeting will not be implemented in JCPS schools and we will continue to follow up with JCPS leadership and their Board to ensure that the concerns of those opposed to the encroachment of religious doctrine in our public schools are properly addressed.
Rabbi Robert Slosberg at Congregation Adath Jeshurun said his concern is the overall impact on the larger community of JCPS allowing the LACES outreach.
“The Jewish Community is concerned, but I think the entire community should be concerned about this,” Slosberg said. “It violates the separation of church and state. I don’t believe it’s legal.”
He added that a school system that allows a group to introduce religious messages into the classroom is risking a reaction from non-Christians and non-believers. “How welcoming are we going to appear?” Slosberg said. “We need to attract as many people from as many backgrounds and religious traditions – and non-religious traditions – as we can. I don’t think we need to make the system less inviting.
“JCPS has enough challenges already.”