Group protests church’s video being shown at middle school
An incident at Grand Mesa Middle School has stirred concern among members of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers about the separation of church and state in local schools.
A teacher at Grand Mesa showed a brief video to his physical education students late last month promoting the 4640 Center, a new club at Fellowship Church that provides basketball courts, a foam pit and a “spider jump center,” along with sermons and religious music. The video was not approved by the school’s principal, Mark Vana, who was out of town at the time of the viewing, according to District 51 Executive Director of Academic Achievement in Secondary Schools Mary Jones.
While a parent who complained about his son seeing the video in school said he felt the problem was settled after he spoke with Vana, he and three members of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers spoke up during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s District 51 School Board meeting to express a desire for the district to do more to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.
WCAF member Anne Landman told school board members she has heard from a handful of people since the February incident that they felt uncomfortable with what they saw as a breach of church and state separation in the past within the district, including a student who said there was religious discussion between activities at a school student council retreat a few years ago at Fellowship Church. Earle Mullen, also of WCAF, told board members stronger policies and making sure all teachers read those policies may be needed to prevent schools from crossing a line.
“There’s been a breach but it’s not unique to District 51. Teachers who take it upon themselves to foist religious beliefs upon youngsters should be held to account,” Mullen said.
Jones said the teacher at Grand Mesa was not attempting to proselytize. He got the video from a friend and believed it was appropriate to show in a gym class due to the center’s physical activity offerings. Vana said he would not have approved the video had he seen it beforehand and the teacher, who said he made a mistake, was reprimanded.
Jones said the district will be more careful about selecting field trip or retreat venues and review with each teacher this fall the policy on showing videos to students, which limits videos to curriculum-appropriate content and videos unlikely to offend “community/cultural sensitivity.”
She added it was hard to tell from the video that the 4640 Center had a religious affiliation and she’s uncertain whether the teacher viewed the video or researched the center before showing it in class.
“(The teacher) broke policy because it looks like we’re promoting a church or a religion,” Jones said. “He was trusting. It wasn’t like he was actually promoting the church. There was some non-transparency with that whole youth group.”
Jayelle Dolan, associate pastor for youth and children at Fellowship Church, said the church neither produced the video nor distributed it to the teacher. She said she did not hear about the incident until it became public.
Now, she said she’s more concerned that teachers and principals will go too far in the other direction and infringe on students’ rights to free speech.
“I think many of our students have been censored in relation to this incident, especially at Grand Mesa Middle School,” she said, saying students at various schools said they had been discouraged from bowing their heads to pray at lunch or handing out fliers for church events at school.
“When one minority opinion starts making them lose their rights, that’s where I think the majority of citizens of Grand Junction would agree that’s not fair,” Dolan said.