Religion in schools draws ire of ACLU

Group asks Baldwin district to investigate reports of proselytizing Santa

The Lawrence-Journal World/December 3, 2003
By Tim Carpenter

Baldwin public school officials are violating the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state, the Douglas County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.

The ACLU urged the school district to investigate elementary schools allowing a Christian minister dressed as Santa Claus to discuss the meaning of Christmas, referral of students who appear to need guidance to Christian resources and granting Christian "missionaries" access to students in after-school programs.

A letter outlining the ACLU's concerns was sent to the Baldwin school board, but the organization appears to be targeting Baldwin Supt. Jim White.

"I think this superintendent doesn't understand the separation of church and state," said Mary Davidson, president of the Douglas County chapter of ACLU. "He should see the error of his ways and repent."

White said he received the ACLU's letter and wrote a reply requesting more details about the complaints.

"So that we might be able to follow up to see if there's anything we should do," he said.

White said he didn't think the district was violating the law.

Davidson said concerns about sectarian religious activity were reported to the ACLU by parents of children in the Baldwin district. The letter sent to the Baldwin board was dated Nov. 25.

Board members Blaine Cone and Stacy Cohen said they hadn't received copies of the ACLU letter from the district as of Tuesday. Both were sent e-mail copies.

"I'm not going to make any comments on it," Cone said of the ACLU's letter.

She said there were differing opinions among parents about the use of Christian themes in schools.

"It's fine with some people," Cone said. "I think any community is going to have those for it and those against it."

But Cohen said she viewed proselytizing in a public school on behalf of any religion as "completely inappropriate." The district's policy handbook bans exhibition of religious preference in Baldwin schools, she said.

She said an incident last year should have served as a reminder of the rules.

In December 2002, parents in the district complained that a pastor dressed as Santa Claus visited Baldwin, Vinland and Marion Springs schools to share with students his thoughts about Jesus.

"I was outraged by having Santa come to the school at an assembly that all kids were required to attend," Cohen said. "I was outraged as a community member."

Davidson said a repeat performance by Santa impersonator Gregg Childress shouldn't be scheduled.

White invited Childress to the schools last year but said Tuesday it was unlikely he would again.

"We may not have any Santa Claus come just to make sure we don't have any entanglements," he said.

The ACLU asked that the parents' latest concerns be investigated by officials of the southern Douglas County school district.

"If they are unfounded, we thank you for your cooperation in preserving the rights of all Baldwin citizens," the letter says. "However, if any of these allegations are factual, we urge you to direct administration to comply with federal law."

In Lawrence, the district's policy forbids "celebration of any particular religious holidays." The influence of religion can be part of the curriculum, but the policy states that at no time can there be preference shown for any one religion.

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