Wednesday, June 08, 2011

SAVED in Hancock County

High School Assembly features
Prayer, Bibles, and the love of Jesus

Kentucky School News and Commentary has received several reports from Hancock County High School students over the past couple of days. These students have complained that an assembly, presented at the close of the school year, might have violated Constitutional provisions governing the establishment of religion in public schools. They claim that the principal was present for as least part of a voluntary assembly where students were offered Bibles along with a religion-based presentation where the Care Net Owensboro speaker, Hannah Goebel, repeatedly invoked God and Jesus Christ.

According to one student:

The assembly was in the gymnasium during classes on May 19, 2011. It was optional, but all of the students I have spoken to said that they were told it was an "assembly about teen pregnancy and sex ed" and they had no qualms about skipping class to attend what they assumed was just another talk about: if you have sex, use protection, or you'll get pregnant and die. Noone was aware that it was a Christian, anti-abortion speaker.
But some (disputed) evidence suggests that our young reporter may not have been paying attention to the household mail. KSN&C received a copy of a letter sent home to families from HCHS Principal Rick Lasley. Rather than being unclear about the intent, it's shockingly clear that the purpose of this public school program was to advance ideals that were specifically Christian as defined by the speaker from the Owensboro Care Net Pregnancy Center.

The letter states:
"We have been given an opportunity for a special optional presentation for our students. Hannah Goebel, Executive Director (sic) of the Care Net Pregnancy Center of Owensboro, will be presenting information this Thursday, May 19 th on today’s culture regarding sexuality in teens today. As the director of the  Pregnancy Center, Hannah sees the effects of teen pregnancy and STD’s daily and is concerned these numbers continue to rise. Her interactive presentation will cover options for pregnancy (parenting, abortion, and adoption), why purity of heart, mind, and body are the best choice, and integrity from a Christian perspective. The Mission of the Care Net Pregnancy Center is to extend Christian compassion and truth by promoting the sanctity of human life and sexual purity.

If you would rather your child to NOT participate in this assembly, please sign below and return to the school office. Please understand that if your child does NOT bring this form back to us signed by you, then we will leave your child’s decision to attend this presentation up to them." 
KSN&C asked Principal Lasley for a comment on the assembly.  Lasley's comment seems to indicate the principal's belief that merely informing parents, and allowing such assemblies to be voluntary is sufficient to satisfy any Constitutional claims. I'm not so sure.

He wrote,
We are very careful at Hancock County High School not to push the beliefs of one group on our students.  For this reason, we always try to allow groups with different messages in to the building to speak to our students and always allow our students opportunities to opt out of the assembly.  For this particular assembly, we sent the attached letter through the mail to every household making it clear that the assembly was optional and also allowed students on the day of the assembly not to attend by their own choosing even if their parent had not returned the letter.  Attendance at this assembly was completely voluntary, the assembly was not school endorsed, and any student who attended was free to leave at any time.
The Lemon Test established by the court in Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) establilshed that everything a school does must:
  1. have a secular purpose
  2. it's principal effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and
  3. it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion
In Stone v Graham (1980 - the famous Kentucky Ten Commandments case) the court outlawed activities which are designed to advance a particular faith - an express goal of Care Net. The voluntary nature of the assembly, as an excuse, seems questionable under Lee v Weisman (1992) which outlaws any subtle or indirect coercion toward the establishment of religion. In Santa Fe v Doe the court held the school responsible for religious speech that was allowed by the school, occurred on school grounds, and/or was a government sponsored, school-related event that was either an endorsement (or was perceived by some students to be an endorsement) of a particular religion and that such speech was not "private."

I'm not an attorney, but I think the school's got some more explainin' to do.

KSN&C asked Lasley to support his statement with examples of other faith traditions represented among this year's HCHS assemblies and whether Planned Parenthood or any similar pro-choice groups held assemblies at the school. He responded, " I do not recall any other groups requesting to conduct an assembly regarding teen-pregnancy related-issues during the 2110-11 school year.  If they had, we would have certainly considered their request regardless of their viewpoint."

I'm not sure that's going to convince anyone
in Hancock County who is not already sympathetic to Care Net's cause.
But it is clear that some number of students perceived the assembly to be a full-throated unconstitutional endorsement of a particular religion.

Now, at this point I thought I would link to CareNet's promotional video, which I viewed yesterday, and which talks about their specific interest in getting "into the public share the love of Christ" but today (since contacting the school for a comment) a new video has been substituted. The new video is not as explicit about focusing on the schools but it is equally clear about the religious motivation behind Care Net's programs. It talks about,
  • "God's plan for you...and your child"
  • "We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord..."
  • CareNet's Chairman of the Board, Greg Longtine says, "I was excited...about Care Net...because of the empahsis on the Gospel of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
  • "Babies life is breathed into by God and that is what we want to see our clients to understand and know..." Jackie Eckdahl, Executive Director
It is only reasonable to conclude that school officials knew, or should have known, the evangelical nature of the program they were bringing, or allowing into the school. I equivocate about whether they were invited or asked because Lasley says the school "was given the opportunity" to have the assembly. But CareNet says on Facebook they were "asked to present to Hancock County High...on the topics of abortion, Christianity, & Purity."   

Then the Care Net Facebook post author adds, "Praying the student's hearts are ready to hear about Jesus!" ...and hear about Jesus they did.

Are there entanglements between school staff and Care Net? I don't know. I asked Lasley, "Inasmuch as CareNet promotes their desire "to share the love of Christ" through in-school assemblies...who approves such student programs at the school?" Lasley did not say.

What is Care Net's purpose? Is it a secular purpose? That's now crystal clear.  Care Net says: The Care Net Pregnancy Center of Owensboro is a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and promoting the sanctity of human life. 

What is the effect of a Care Net assembly? Does it have the effect of advancing religion? Well, let's leave it to the students to say what the effect is. Funny thing about students - we too often assume they are not listening in assemblies. But at least one of the HCHS honor's students who sent information to KSN&C included notes taken during the assembly. 

This from an HCHS student (edited to protect the identity of the minors involved):

They started the assembly with "reading the newspaper," which was really them shouting about how the news nowadays was irrelevant to what was really happening.  Their focus was abortions. They said things like "54 babies aborted this year in Hancock County and Daviess County alone." At this point, 2 girls walked out.
The next thing on their agenda was a game, but they didn't announce to us what it was about. They said they needed 40 volunteers, but only about ten people stood up. They sent out 5 people that helped with CareNet out to hand out cards to people. They handed them to people that they figured didn't want to participate. 
One girl was selected even after telling the boy who was handing out the cards that she didn't want to participate, but he insisted, shoving the card and pen into her hands. They had the students get into a line and then stay completely silent for 2 minutes, running around and signing as many cards as possible, also getting their own cards signed. They then had the students sit down on the gym floor, and had the two people with stars on the back of their cards stand up.
Those two people happened to be LM and RW. They read off all the names on both cards and stood up. Those people were now infested with an STD. The people with their names on those cards stood up. They now had an STD. They gave out suckers to the people who participated and then had them all sit back down. (Glad to know that they support Sexually Transmitted Diseases by handing out suckers.)
They then continued by having the students of our school pray (which I'm pretty sure is some kind of illegal).
The woman also went into a rant about even though the pregnant or mothers at HCHS were so brave, but the single fathers had it so much harder and were so much more brave and she felt so happy that they had chosen life although they could have taken "the easy way out".
She proceeded to tell us stories about girls that came into her clinic who were in "at risk" situations if they had their children and opted out of an abortion. After all of this, she told us how every single person in the room was going to hell if they didn't repent to Jesus Christ.
After the assembly, she offered us all t-shirts that read 'INTEGRITY' on them, and said that the people who participated in the game got first dibs on the t-shirts. They also offered us Bibles, stickers, pencils, and counseling.

The girl who had protested, but still participated in the game, went up to receive her t-shirt. The woman handing them out said that the girls got first grabs on them, and even then looked that student right in the eye and ignored her every time she offered up the right size. When it was just boys and that girl left in the group, she handed them out to everyone else but not her, leaving her there when everyone else had received their shirts. She looked at the girl with a sly grin, meaning that she must have done it on purpose.
There was extreme prejudice in the group coming to the school. The stickers that they handed out said "PET YOUR DOG - NOT YOUR DATE" and they are now pasted all over everything at HCHS.

Another student recalled,

So, we walked in there and sat down and Mrs Nevitt introduced the lady. It was pretty awkward because she walked up there introduced herself/the other ladies there and then she began to read from the Messenger-Inquirer and she would say like “this article should say (insert fact about abortions in the region here)” and then crumble the paper and throw it.
The whole thing was basically about how abortions are bad and sex is bad.
It was the typical anti-abortion mumbo jumbo that is always said. I just remember thinking how totally biased and GOD-based the entire thing was. Every sentence she talked about God. She also talked about how having sex left you emotionally connected with a person through hormones you emit from your brain. Really? Then she said like “How do you feel having sex and then having breakfast with your grandma, how does that feel?” and some kid yelled out “FEELS PRETTY GOOD”.

Another student said that the presenter had talked about how her mother had gotten an abortion at a young age and was likely going to hell despite repentance, so the speaker had made this her mission on her mother’s behalf.

He gave an account of the STD “game” they played and,
He also stated that he was almost certain he remembered seeing Principal Rick Lasley present in the beginning, but he thinks he ducked out partway through.
another demonstration during which the speaker taped duct tape to a piece of cardboard, then ripped it off to symbolize how, when you attach yourself to another person with sex, a part of you is ripped away when they leave you.

But, about the letters they sent out, I never even got one. They didn't send them out to everyone, just a selsct few...I hope they get what they deserve for bringing the church into publicly funded schools or whatever else, but I know that what they have shoved down our throats involuntarily is wrong.
Another student said,
While I don't have the letter because I didn't receive one like they said everyone should have, I know that the teachers were supposed to say that it was simply an assembly on pregnancy and sex education, nothing about religion or Care Net or abortion was stated.

Almost all of the teachers were present, unless they were watching over their lead class, which wasn't many at all. Most of the students attended the assembly. It was organized by (faculty member) Michelle Nevitt (who the student says is an active member of Lewisport UMC has insulted students for sexual orientation and atheism in the past.) and (a student with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) along with CareNet.


Anonymous said...

As a Jewish educator, I can say, once again, LOUDLY, incidents like this make Kentucky a backward state. We continue to allow schools, under the guise of local control, the right to push Christianity down students' mouths. I'm simply disgusted. And, no, I refuse to believe this is an isolated incident.

Anonymous said...

we are so worried our children will learn about God that we take things out of context most of the time but what about those that don't believe the ones that do have to hear all about and deal with the ones that don't believe it's called Life so you folks need to get one !!!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you took this story on. As a former student, I could NOT believe they had allowed this to happen. I was not surprised to hear who were most involved, but I was saddened to hear that no one seemed to think that there was a problem.
I hope we will be hearing much more about this.

Anonymous said...

I think this assembly, and they manner in which it was presented was wrong, and I say that as a Christian.
I believe that we should have education about sex, and pregnancy, and STD's, etc., in our schools and I think it would help to decrease the number of pregnant teens, but I think when you bring in the religious aspects of it then all they hear is "Wah, wah, wah" like the adults on Charlie Brown.
And I think that this school tried to make a semi-good point in a very bad way.

Anonymous said...

I want to start out by saying that I am a student at Hancock County High School and was present at this assembly, although I will remain anonymous as not to be singled out by any school officials. I can attest to the validity of this story. I have never been one to shy away from various opinions, believing that diversity is important in society. The manner in which these Christian views were presented, however, was incredibly offensive. The speaker shouted numerous times, and insulted the student body saying that we were "not worthy" of God's love. I am beyond disappointed in my school's faculty for bringing this speaker into our school. Not only is religion not a suitable topic for students, but the manner they were presented in was abrasive and offensive. I can not express the gratitude I feel towards the author of this article. You have given a voice to the students who believe school should be a place of education, not a podium for religious sermons.

Anonymous said...

I am also a student at Hancock County High School. I recently discussed this topic with six of my friends as we had lunch over summer vacation. Not a single one of us received this letter; convenient. By the introduction, I wasn't led to believe it was going to be as religiously based as it was, so I stayed. After a couple minutes in, I felt it would be rude to walk up and leave, not to mention being seen by some of the Christian teachers that have proven to favor Christian students.

I just think that this whole assembly took the religious view way to far. They might ask well have asked Westboro to speak.

Richard Day said...

June 9, 2011 7:09 PM:

You said: "we are so worried our children will learn about God that we take things out of context most of the time but what about those that don't believe the ones that do have to hear all about and deal with the ones that don't believe it's called Life so you folks need to get one !!!"

I wanted to respond to your post, but I'm not sure what you've said. Perhaps a little puncutation and the occasional capital letter might have helped.

Who in this story, do you imagine, is afraid students will learn about God? ...or did you just throw some imaginary somebody out there, as a red herring?

Taken out of context? Hardly. We know it was a sanctioned public school event (according to the law, if not the principal). We know that the views of the presenters were well-known (or should have been) in advance of the assembly. We know first-hand what happened from the students who attended. No, I'd say the context is well-known, and that's the problem. That someone presented this information is perfectly fine in a free society. But presenting it in a public school is not.

Then you kinda lost me.

You weren't whining about Christians being forced to listen to non-Christians, were you? Because that is clearly NOT happening at Hancock County High.

Perhaps, when you turn on your TV, that happens. But that's not a school issue. That's a free speech issue. In the public square, even the assembly these students sat through would be OK. In the public square, even Westboro Baptist, gets to speak.

Please tell me that you would not invite them to present a gay-hating America's-gloing-to-hell-assembly at your school?

Take a peek at the law before you answer.

Anonymous said...

Does Hancock County even have other religions? It's all white christians!

Anonymous said...

Well, I hope that was meant as a joke, since we have many prominent families of other races, and several families who do not raise their children as christians. i am one of them, and they have every right to be immensely offended.