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Okla. school system adopts religious liberty protection policy

MUSTANG, Okla. (BP)–Five months to the day after a nativity scene was disallowed in a fifth grade holiday program at an Oklahoma elementary school, the school system’s board of directors unanimously approved a religious liberty policy May 9 that declares “the proper role of religion in the public school curriculum is academic and not devotional.”

Approval of the policy by the Mustang Public Schools board of directors was hailed by the central figure in the controversy which rocked this suburb of Oklahoma City as “wonderful.” Superintendent Karl Springer banned a nativity scene from Lakehoma Elementary School’s annual holiday play Dec. 9, basing his decision on a legal opinion issued by the school system’s legal counsel, who cited separation of church and state arguments.

“I think this document is wonderful,” Springer told a small crowd which gathered for the board meeting. “If we had had this policy in place, we would not have had any issue come up in December. It provides us with an opportunity to be able to teach about religion, and that makes all the difference.”

Dave Bryan, pastor of Chisholm Heights Baptist Church, co-chaired the 30-member task force. He made the formal presentation of the eight-page document to the board.

“We are pleased and honored to bring this to you tonight,” Bryan said. “We challenge the school system to teach about religion … our responsibility is to provide our students with the educational background that allows them, their parents and other members of the community to understand their faith and to express that faith as protected by our Constitution.”

Bryan pointed to two paragraphs in the Religious Liberty Policy’s preamble: “Public schools may neither instill nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Mustang Public Schools uphold the First Amendment by protecting the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or no faith.

“The proper role of religion in the public school curriculum is academic and not devotional. Mustang Public Schools strives to advance the students’ knowledge and appreciation of the role that religion has played in all aspects of human history and development.”

Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of the nativity scene from the program centered on the fact that references to Kwaanza, Hanukkah and secular holiday rituals were allowed. The night of the program, a small group of protesters stood across the street from the school. Some held signs declaring, “No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas.”

Angry citizens organized a drive to defeat two bond issues five days later on Dec. 14. Proposal one, which would have created a new, $10.4 million elementary school to accommodate 650 students, failed to receive the needed 60 percent of voter approval, getting only 54 percent.

A second proposal also failed, getting 55 percent of the vote. It would have replaced aging buses, created new soccer and softball locker rooms and a vocational-agricultural facility at the high school, provided for roof repairs at one of the schools and updated heating and air-conditioning systems at the upper schools.

The school district plans to place the bond issues on the ballot again this fall.

The Mustang School System has an enrollment of more than 7,400 students at 10 school sites. After the election, the school board authorized Springer to create the task force to address the issue of religious liberty in the school system.

The new policy specifically addresses three areas: teacher training and curriculum, religious holidays and religious expression. It also includes a complaint policy, which “promotes a fair, conscientious and equitable investigation and/or resolution of complaints involving or affecting religious liberties.

The policy is intended to establish a procedure whereby complaints regarding religious liberties within the district can be resolved at the proper administrative level.

Bryan said the task force began meeting in January. The group met several times and also met for two days with Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center in Washington D.C., co-author/editor of “Finding Common Ground, A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools.”

“Haynes explained the difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion in the public schools,” Bryan said. “He really laid out the principle that as long as it is academic, there is nothing wrong, and everything right, about teaching religion in schools.”

Bryan said he is very pleased with the final document.

“I think this is going to be great because our citizens will see we’re protecting the rights of all segments of our community,” he said. “For people of faith, it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity because we finally see our schools moving to where we’re not excluding religion from the schools, but now it’s being embraced on a neutral level.

“I think our schools have been promoting secularism as the religion of choice of our nation, that no religion is preferable, and I’ve always felt like there’s got to be something else better. This is a really neat opportunity to see that our schools are going to be sharing about religion and, of course, parents, students and everyone will be able to find the correctness of that in the proper setting.”

Said Springer: “I look forward to working with the committee in the future. We have developed a relationship now and if something comes up, we’ll get together and talk about it. I really appreciate the work the committee did, and I am astonished how well that policy looks and how it was put together. Other school districts and educational agencies are going to want to see it, and starting tomorrow, we’re going to share it with everybody.”
This story first appeared in the Baptist Messenger, the newspaper of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, online at www.baptistmessenger.com.

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  • Bob Nigh