tampabay.com

FCAT blessing raises a ruckus

By TOM MARSHALL
Published February 22, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - It had been a hard Friday at Brooksville Elementary School, with lots of misbehavior that didn't bode well for the start of state testing the following week.

So the principal and a few staff members appealed to a higher power.

They prayed and blessed their students' desks with prayer oil.

While the Christian prayers and anointing took place after school hours on the night of Friday, Feb. 2, the oil was still on desks the following Monday when teachers opened their classrooms.

Some felt the extra help crossed a line.

"We thought it was vandalism. It was greasy. It was oily," said fourth-grade teacher Chris Becker, who resigned later that week to take a teaching job in Citrus County.

"One of my colleagues said she was told by one of the secretaries it was prayer oil," he said. "I was very offended by that because I'm not a Christian."

Principal Mary LeDoux said she found nothing wrong with what she and "four or five" colleagues did, but said staff members agreed to hold future prayer meetings off campus after she had a conversation with superintendent Wendy Tellone.

"It was staff members on their own time who said, 'Do you mind if we say some prayers for the kids on the Friday night before FCAT, so the kids would do well?' " LeDoux said, adding that no children participated. "We went into all the classrooms, and we touched all the desks and asked that the kids would do well."

Former teachers at the Hernando County school, where 62 percent of students receive a free or reduced-fee lunch, said it wasn't the first time in recent years that religious practices have intruded upon the regular school day.

School district officials said they are not investigating the incident, and said monitoring employees' religious behavior isn't their only legal mandate.

"We also can't discriminate against folks who want to practice or live within their religious practice, as long as it's not disruptive," said J. Paul Carland, an attorney for the Hernando County schools.

But an official with the American Civil Liberties Union said the religious group crossed a constitutional line, effectively imposing their beliefs by leaving prayer oil on the desks for children and staff members to see.

"If the principal and teachers want to have some kind of prayer after hours, that's not a constitutional problem," said Rebecca Steele, director of the ACLU office in Tampa. "But they did leave tangible evidence of their religious activity, and that was troubling to people."

* * *

E-mails were flying at Brooksville Elementary that Monday.

"I'm not offended by it, I just found it odd," one teacher wrote. "I'm a Christian and believe in prayer, but it is a personal choice, not one that should be forced upon people."

Becker, the union representative to the Hernando Classroom Teachers' Association, e-mailed a complaint to superintendent Tellone about the incident, but said he never received a response.

"The teachers in my wing were offended; they were scared," he said, describing a school culture in which teachers who oppose such displays are isolated and criticized.

Joni Whitehead taught at the school for 20 years, including 11 as music teacher, before resigning last spring.

She said she was appalled by the religious content of a holiday program organized last year by another teacher.

"They were praying; it was all religious, all Christian," Whitehead said. "If we had a faculty meeting, there was a Jesus prayer."

Former technology coordinator Martina Smith said staff members' participation before school in the National Day of Prayer made her and others uncomfortable, particularly when she heard discussions at school about which teachers skipped the event.

"That was one of the reasons I came to America, you have that separation of church and state," she said, describing her decision to emigrate from Germany. "You're suddenly not as good a person because you didn't attend their prayer circle?"

LeDoux said such criticisms came from disgruntled former employees, and most teachers feel a supportive and family atmosphere at the school.

"Now I tell my staff members, 'You're welcome to pray for my classes and my children, but you need to do it somewhere else,' " LeDoux said. "And that disappoints me, because it is after hours or before hours, and why should it be an issue?"

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.