Friday, September 9, 2011

Religion In The Classroom...When Will They Learn?

T'is that time of year again.  A time for children everywhere in the U.S. to plod reluctantly back into the classroom after a glorious summer of swimming in the creek, playing tag at the park, rolling hoops with sticks, and trying to retrieve their Frisbee from old-man-Wilson's back yard...that's what kids still do in the summer right?  Among the many start of the school year activities is getting new supplies.  New jeans, pencils, paper, etc. ...Trapper Keepers are still cool right?

In Lindale, TX students of eighth grade algebra teacher Amy Priddy got some unusual items on this year's start-of-year supply list.  The bible was included as a required classroom supply item (along with pencils, paper, etc) and the list also stated that a classroom expectation was to "Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord."  This wasn't on the district approved list, only on the list Mz. Priddy made up herself and gave directly to students.  Whoa Nelly!  If there was ever an obvious example of a rogue teacher going over that church/state line, this is it. One of the parents was understandably uncomfortable with the list and contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).  Last week (8/30/11) the FFRF released a statement that they were contacting the Lindale, TX school district and middle school principal regarding this fairly blatant violation of the 1st Amendment separation. (
...noted FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt in her letter. "Mrs. Priddy’s decision to include 'Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord' and a Bible as classroom expectations distributed to parents and students crosses the line [of state-church separation] because she is endorsing and promoting religion while acting in her official capacity as a school district employee,"

I hadn't found much follow-up in the google-able press this week, so I contacted the FFRF directly to see if there was an update.  It turns out that the teacher had previously worked for a private school (I assume a parochial one) and made a "simple mistake" in forgetting to update it.  Annie Laurie Gaylor pointed me to this local press follow-up story:
"We take it very seriously," Lindale ISD Superintendent Stan Surratt said. "We're very aware of the law. It was just a simple mistake."  He says Priddy never meant for those requests to make it to students.  "She knows that's not allowed at our school," Surratt said. "It was just a harmless error." 

A statement directly from Priddy says she used to teach in a private school and "used a previous supply list and inadvertently failed to cut [the religious requirements] from the current supply list."  (
Sometime this week the school sent home a new supply list to parents.  Priddy's classroom was also reviewed to make sure there weren't any other materials that would illegally promote a "religious point of view" and it turned out clean.  The district took this complaint seriously, talked to the teacher (no word on discipline yet), and corrected the list.  The FFRF has responded to this resolution with language along the lines of "the district did the right thing" and "we are pleased."  I guess there's no way to verify that Priddy's actions were actually 100% innocent.  At least these school officials REALIZE that Priddy's list was not appropriate.

This is a good win, but the minimal press coverage bugs me a bit.  Unfortunately we almost always only hear about the  intransigent school board, city council, or other government officials digging in their heels and making a big stink when they're reminded that they're not allowed to blend religion with government.  I know it's not realistic with today's "if it bleeds it leads" media culture, but I wish we heard more about these simple, civil resolutions.  One of our best secular watchdog organizations brought this violation to the attention of the relevant authorities using direct "you can't do this" language and the school officials took the appropriate actions to correct the situation.  FFRF used a civil, measured response and the school officials took the law seriously.  Mz. Priddy hasn't made any further comments to the press, that's fine.  She has a right to privacy.  Good job FFRF.  Good job Lindale school district. 

But it would be nice if the broader public knew that most of the time these violations get respolved quickly with a direct, polite letter and a minimum of fuss.  Atheists aren't all litigious, frothing at the mouth bullies and school officials aren't all fundamentalist brick walls refusing to acknowledge the law.  Maybe if more of these stories got a wider distribution both sides wouldn't feel they have to dig trenches and raise an army when government and religion collide.

Oh well, it was a good win.

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