Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Conway School Board protects church visits; speech for parents not so much

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 8:01 PM

SOME RIGHTS OK: The Liberty Institute, which crafted a policy adopted in Conway to protect church visitors in schools, managed to get the policy approved at meeting of public school board that didnt give the public an opportunity to speech. Half a victory for the 1st Amendment.
  • SOME RIGHTS OK: The Liberty Institute, which carries this image on its website, crafted a policy adopted in Conway to protect church visitors in schools. The policy was approved at meeting of public school board that didn't give the public an opportunity to speak. A victory for the religious part of the 1st Amendment, if not all free speech.
The Conway School Board tonight adopted a policy crafted by a conservative religious organization meant to continue to facilitate regular lunchtime visits to schools by youth ministers. In theory, the visitors will be approved and visiting only members of their groups, not recruiting or evangelizing. Parents have said evangelizing has been a part of some visitors' past practices. The policy was developed by the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based conservative religious organization that works to advance the cause of religion in public places.

Diane Robinson, a parent in the School District, provides this report:

As expected, the Conway School Board voted to approve the revised policy on visitors to the schools. It was announced that there was no time for public comment and that no one requested an opportunity to speak. I will point out that the Liberty Institute report was released late on Thursday and Thursday was the deadline to ask to speak. When I asked on Friday morning to address the board I was refused.

School Superintendent Greg Murry gave history, including that youth pastors have been in the schools since the 1980s. He did not mention that there had been at least one complaint to a principal separate and apart from the complaint to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Jeff Mateer, general counsel of the Liberty Institute, then gave a report, pointing out that he has a son at John Brown University and that the Liberty Institute was working on a pro bono basis. He argued that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter was based on factual misrepresentation, specifically that the letter complained that youth pastors had "unique access". Mr. Mateer stated that the pastors had received no special treatment and there was no evidence of predatory conduct.

In fact, I have personally witnessed a representative of a religious organization roaming a middle school cafeteria speaking to children at will. My child has been approached, given bookmarks, and invited to meetings, all without my permission. This has happened at two different middle schools in two school years. As a parent, I will point out, I am only allowed to have lunch with my child - I cannot ask another child to join us for lunch. To me, this is unique access for religious visitors. When I pointed this out to Mr. Mateer after the meeting he disagreed that it constituted unique access.

There was discussion in the board meeting about limiting time, place, and manner, and some discussion about other visitors on the school campuses. There was also discussion about background checks for school visitors.

The policy adopted is appropriate in my opinion. The question will be how it is enforced. Dr. Bradshaw of Conway Schools stated that they have been working on the following:

1. software to enable instant background checks for school visitors based on drivers' licenses or state-issued IDs
2. Standard consent forms for parents of children in grades K-7, enabling parents to specify who their children are allowed to meet with at school.
3. Written policy to parents of children in grades 8-12 (this sounds more like an opt-out, whereas for younger children it's an opt-in).

A school board member wanted to know if campuses would be open to visitors tomorrow. Dr. Murry replied that they need time to work through the process administratively, but that it would be a matter of weeks not months. Dr. Murry also pointed out the need to be respectful of parents who did not want their children to visit with pastors at school.

I've asked superintendent Murry about why the meeting was scheduled in such a way that parents could not speak before the school board. I've also asked him to respond to Robinson's testimony that she's observed religious recruiting and whether he thinks it should be allowed in the future. I've asked him, too, about his own opinion of the Liberty Institute's reported comment to Robinson that the organization didn't see special access for preachers if they could invite other students to lunch but parents could not.

Until now, Murry has referred all questions to the Texas-based conservative religious organiztion, which promotes religion in public places. I'd hope he'd be the first authority on operation of the Conway schools, but perhaps not.

UPDATE: Murry himself responded tonight, a welcome change.

* On the scheduling that prevented public input:

Timing was coincidental and certainly not intentional.

School Board policy requires that anyone wishing to address the board request to do so by Thursday (5 days).

* On the nature of visits:

Open (or private) proselytizing - will not be allowed. Period. Parents have had clear and open access to visiting with their children during lunch in the past and that will obviously continue in the future. Youth pastors have not and will not have greater access to students than parents.

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