Schools give the devil his due
Bible giveaway riles nonbelievers, and there may be hell to pay
DELTA — It all began with Gideon Bibles offered for free on a table in the middle school library. And now, those Bibles have led to the distribution of Satanic coloring books and pamphlets on abortion.
The issue of separation of church and school has escalated to the point of threats investigated by police and a community divided in contention, with students in the crosshairs of a fight to keep religion in or out of schools.
Today, a compromise to keep the Delta County School District out of the courtroom means that pamphlets promoting other, non-Christian views will be offered in the same manner the Gideon Bibles were displayed back in December. Publications including “The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities,” “Why Jesus?” and “Top 10 Public School-State Church Violations and How to Stop Them” will be free for students at middle and high schools today.
The agreement calls for the district to offer the materials from 30 minutes before school starts until 15 minutes after classes end, allowing students access during passing periods and lunchtime. The district’s policy on allowing non-academic materials to be distributed allows for these publications to be offered, though the fallout from the Bible incident has district officials considering a policy change to alter the open-door policy.
The district brokered a deal with the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation to allow the distribution of the non-Christian materials in an effort to avoid litigation for allowing the Bibles to be available to students during school, which the organization said is unconstitutional.
The FFRF asked the district to stop, and cited its experience with the Orange County Schools in Florida, which spent more than $86,000 over two years fighting to allow distribution of religious literature. Eventually the school board in Florida voted to end all distributions last year, which is what the FFRF requested in the first place.
The ultimate goal of requiring the materials to be offered is to prompt the district to adopt a policy that will keep religion out of public schools, according to Anne Landman, a board member of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers.
Currently, the district’s non-curricular materials distribution policy allows any organization to offer its publications to students, whether it’s the Gideons, a Little League team or the Girl Scouts. Assistant Superintendent Kurt Clay said the intent was to allow a wide variety of opportunities to be publicized in schools for the benefit of students. Delta County schools range from Hotchkiss and Paonia to Cedaredge, and are often in rural areas without recreation centers, where parent volunteers organize extra-curricular events. The population of Delta County is estimated to be less than 30,000, according to the U.S. Census.
The intent of the policy was to make it easy for groups like Boy Scouts, Girls on the Run and other organizations to let kids know about their programs. But the policy is a double-edged sword.
The only limitation is against materials that promote hostility or violence, advertise a product, promote candidacy in an election, or are obscene or pornographic. All others are fair game.
“Once we open that window up, we can’t discriminate at that point — it just has to meet the guidelines,” Clay said. “We just wanted to do what’s best for kids. And it’s too bad we have groups making our schools a place for their political agenda in a lot of ways.”
Because of pressure from the FFRF, and to avoid litigation, the district agreed to let the atheists provide literature in accordance with its current policy to allow those materials to be offered to students in exactly the same fashion as the Gideon Bibles were displayed.
“The reality is we have to let anything that meets the requirements into the schools,” Clay said. “This is the downside of this policy.”
But some say the Bibles being offered in public schools is a violation of the separation between church and state, and only scratches the surface of a long history of religion-tainted activities and curriculum in this rural school district.
Parents, students and the WCAF claim that a religious club featuring free doughnuts proselytized to middle-school students, that the district subjects high schoolers to a faith-based abstinence-only sex education presentation taught by a religious public speaker, and that the district has no policy to protect students who don’t share the majority beliefs of the Christian community in this homogenous town.
THE GIDEON BIBLES
The WCAF contacted the district after a parent of a middle-schooler, Aileen Harmon, said her daughter was harassed by other students for not taking a free Gideon Bible from a table in the library on Dec. 18, according to the group’s Facebook posts. The FFRF became involved after the freethinkers group contacted the district, Landman said.
An organization called HAFTA (Humanists, Atheists, Free Thinkers and Agnostics) in Montrose also knew about the issue and was concerned by the Bibles being offered. But a representative said the group doesn’t support the distribution of the atheist pamphlets and wanted to handle the situation differently. The organization proposed offering evolution-based educational materials to balance out the Bibles.
“We do not agree with the idea of grossing out the school board with all those materials,” said Al Read of HAFTA. “If it were contentious in a productive way, then we would be interested, but we don’t feel this was a good idea. I think really, it’s potentially dangerous. It brings the nuts and the idiots out. Some people just are crazy when this religion stuff starts bouncing around.”
Harmon told The Daily Sentinel her daughter has received death threats and that their home was toilet-papered by vandals, but refused to comment otherwise for this story.
The district said they have received no specific reports of bullying or threats from Harmon, though Clay said the superintendent did receive a phone call from Harmon this week in which district officials attempted to resolve any concerns. Harmon did not provide any details on specific threats or bullying, Clay said. He also said the middle school administration has not received any specific complaints about bullying or threats, and that the rumors have come from posts on Facebook and in the community.
Rumors that a middle-schooler was recently suspended for a fight that started after another student told her to “go kill herself” in an argument about church vs. state issues are not true, Clay said.
The district and Delta Police Department investigated one specific threat made by a high-schooler on Facebook, stating that if pamphlets were distributed, atheists would go home in body bags.
“We did investigate a report of a potential threat made via social media, which was unfounded on the grounds of insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges based on freedom of speech (statements made in a public forum via social media on a public domain page) and lack of specific threatening language in the statements,” police spokeswoman Jamie Head said.
Head said the police department is aware of the situation and is on alert in case anything happens today, with extra officers dedicated to patrolling the school zones.
THE ‘WAIT’ PROGRAM
In October 2015, a speaker named Shelly Donahue was hired to give presentations to students at all Delta County high schools, in which boys were segregated from girls and given separate talks.
This piece of the abstinence-only-based sex education program in the district was paid for by The Pregnancy Resource Center, a local nonprofit. The center’s services include pregnancy testing, as well as “accurate information on all the options, believing that such facts will help the woman reach a decision which respects the will of God and recognizes the sacredness of both her life and the life within her,” according to their website. The center also has a goal of “discipling of new Christians.” Donahue is the founder of TALL Truth ministries, based in Eaton, which offers the WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) training curriculum. One of her goals stated on her website is “to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord through all that we do in educating, encouraging, empowering, and equipping parents and adults to raise the bar of sexual self-control in the teenagers they influence.”
Senior Cidney Fisk sat through both the boys and girls presentations at Delta High School because she was covering it for the student magazine, Paw Print. Fisk, who is 18 and has attended school in Delta since fourth grade, said she noticed a religious tone to the presentation.
“On every slide, there was a crucifix,” she said. “And she mentioned briefly that having sex before marriage made you further from God.”
Indeed, photos provided by Fisk show a cross on the slides, as part of the logo for Donahue’s ministry, in which the “t” in “Tall Truth: Sexuality Education Rooted in Truth” is a cross.
“She talked about being subservient to your husband and your future partner, and the reason women shouldn’t have sex before marriage was that they should be respectful of their husband,” she said.
Fisk said aside from the religious overtones, she and other students found the presentation to be hetero-normative, meaning that it didn’t apply to LGBTQ students or consider variables in sexuality or gender identity, and that it was assumed the audience would be straight males and females who intended to marry.
“I think we can stand as a district that we do believe that way,” said Clay, but noted that he found the main message to be that students should think about choices prior to making them, and consider the consequences. “Do I stand by that? Absolutely,” he said.
Clay said he attended the presentation for boys given at Paonia High School, and that he found nothing religious about the assembly. When asked about the crosses on the Powerpoint slides, he said he didn’t see that.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t there, I’m saying I didn’t notice it,” he said.
Students who did not want to participate in the assembly could opt out by having a parent or guardian sign a permission form and returning it to the school. This practice of requiring permission to abstain is standard, Clay said, while other activities such as field trips require a signed permission slip to participate. Clay did not know how many students opted out of the presentation.
Donahue’s presentation has been going on for years and is nothing new.
High-schoolers in Delta County have been presented with the WAIT program for at least the last decade, according to Clay.
“I think they’ve gotten away with it for so long because there’s little to no opposition in the community,” said Fisk, who considers herself an atheist. She said she only knows of three other students with similar beliefs at school, but said there may be more who are too afraid to be open about their stance.
“It’s scary to be an atheist in this community,” she said, mentioning the threats made on social media since the Bible incident.
“It’s like I always feel like I’m being proselytized to, like they’re trying to convert me,” she said, estimating that the culture of the school is heavily Christian, with more than 90 percent of the student body considering themselves religious. At one point, Fisk tried to form a secular student alliance club, but wasn’t successful in finding a faculty sponsor for the group. She started a Young Democrats club instead. Fisk said the constant undertone of religious culture at Delta schools have made it somewhat uncomfortable for her over the years.
“It makes it hard to be who you are,” she said. “The school has no respect for separation of church and state.”
THE DOUGHNUT CLUB
The district recently discontinued the meeting of a club called “Donuts with Dunham” at Delta Middle School after complaints that a teacher, Dan Dunham, was proselytizing to students during a before-school club that offered free doughnuts. The FFRF claimed the meeting of a teacher-led religious club violated several laws and requested a buffer time between the club and school, citing the “seamless transition entangles the government too closely with religion.”
After receiving a letter from the FFRF’s attorney, Andrew Seidel, which cited violations of the Establishment Clause and other case law, the district ended the group.
“It did make us look at that, because we didn’t want to get sued,” Clay said.
The group has re-formed as a student-led group with a faculty sponsor, who is not Dunham. The group meets after school now, Clay said, instead of before school.
“We’re doing the exact same thing at a different time,” he said, calling the timing of the meeting and the faculty vs. student-led group a “technicality.”
CONSIDERING A NEW POLICY
The question of whether to allow religious materials in public schools has ignited debate, and has also made the district re-think its open-door policy.
“We are looking at the policy,” Clay said, noting that a team is currently exploring options as the first part of a three-part process that will involve community input before the school board considers it for adoption. Clay estimated the process could take three to six months, and said the district is considering the possibility of using an email subscription system for these materials, like the one used in School District 51.
For now, the district is responsible for making sure the materials from the atheists and freethinkers are available and that nothing happens to those materials to prevent them from being offered to students, who will be allowed to take one of each item.
“Our kids will be respectful, for the most part, and if they aren’t, we’ll deal with it,” he said.
Seven schools are expected to receive the materials today, including middle and high schools in Delta, Hotchkiss, Paonia and Cedaredge.
In the meantime, the WCAF has applied to use the Delta Middle School cafeteria for an “Ask an Atheist” pizza get-together for students on April 14, after school.