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School system directive raises questions for Christian groups

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP)–A directive by a Nashville-area school board that forbids Christian groups from “officially” meeting during school hours or having faculty sponsors is illegal, according to a spokesman for the national office of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The directive was most recently enforced at Page High School, where club sponsors of Christian organizations, including the president of the school’s FCA chapter, were given a memorandum that outlined the Williamson County School Board’s policy toward religious groups.

The FCA was meeting along with other extracurricular clubs during the school day but was ordered to stop when the school board informed high school principal Joe Yeager that it was against school policy.

“As per board policy, students wishing to participate in a Christian or any other religious organization may do so during the school day, but may not have scheduled meetings or a school/teacher sponsor,” wrote Aimee Wyatt, Page High School’s activities sponsor. “We understand this to mean that any student-led group may meet as they wish, but it cannot be sanctioned by the school nor can a teacher or any religious official from outside the school sponsor the meeting.”

Wyatt told Baptist Press the memorandum was distributed after the school officials were alerted that a Christian group was violating the directive. “We have a club period where groups can meet during the school day,” Wyatt said. “And apparently the FCA was meeting, too. That is not allowed under this policy.”

In other words, Wyatt said, if the FCA wanted to meet, it had to do so spontaneously.

Wyatt said the policy was enforced when a school board member complained. “A local minister had been invited to a club meeting and it sent up a red flag,” she said.

Wyatt said the policy is in place to protect students from other so-called religious groups. “If Christian groups can meet, then so can satanic groups,” Wyatt said. “And that was the concern. We can’t give certain groups special treatment. If students want to meet and form a group, that’s fine.”

David Smale, director of communication for the FCA, called the Williamson County directive illegal.

“It happens all the time,” Smale said. “What they have done is totally against the law.”

Smale said the Williamson County School Board seems to have a double standard in place. “As long as other clubs are meeting, they cannot turn away a faith-based organization,” Smale said. “That’s what the Supreme Court ruling said in 1993. If your school is allowing anything extracurricular, then you have to allow the FCA.”

But the Williamson County policy has a Catch-22 in its directive. The policy states that Christian groups are not allowed to have teacher sponsors. However, if a club doesn’t have a sponsor then it can’t meet at the school, according to Justin Cook, the high school’s FCA president.

“Obviously, the school board is trying to stop us from meeting, but they’re doing it in a way that is deceiving,” Cook said. “Our sponsor hasn’t come to any of our meetings [since the Nov. 2 directive] and he hasn’t been involved.”

Steve Carr, senior pastor of Grassland Baptist Church in another part of the county, expressed dismay at the FCA problem.

“I think that it is unfortunate and an unfair way to treat an organization that stands for good and stands for a means to encourage youth as a positive influence,” Carr said.

At the same time, Carr offered advice for Christian teenagers in Williamson County who are upset with the policy.

“Christian teenagers should be careful they don’t come across as going against the rules,” he said. “They should feel comfortable conveying their feelings of being treated unfairly. I would suggest that they don’t back away from taking a stand. Still, they should respond in keeping with the example of Christ.”

Cook said he has approached the issue in spiritual terms.

“I don’t think anyone here wants to do something that will hurt our Christian witness,” Cook said. “The enemy [Satan] is trying to work in our school against what God is doing. I see stuff every day and I see it is the enemy.”

The school board is researching and preparing a new policy to be adopted regarding student-led and school-sponsored groups, according to communication director Carol Birdsong. She said there was no definite timetable on when the policy might be completed.

School board officials may be reached at (615) 595-4700.

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  • Todd Starnes