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Kids' needs should not bow before religion

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


There are major issues facing educators today, from fine-tuning the curriculum to meet the challenges of the new century to keeping school systems running with ever-fewer dollars.

In Citrus County today, however, our educators are sidetracked by the issue of prayer and religion in school. Although it's very important to individuals, it is a matter that was settled by courts years ago. Yet, here we are, squandering precious time and resources fighting old holy wars.

New School Board member Carol Snyder is at the eye of the storm because she had the audacity to suggest that the prayer before board meetings be respectful of the faiths of all county residents, not just fundamentalists, and that a public school is not the proper place for religious conversion, especially during school hours.

The overheated reactions to those sensible suggestions stunned her, not because she was naive and underestimated the religious fervor of some Citrus residents, but because these are old issues. She thought that she was doing a bit of housekeeping for the board, reminding them that they were on shaky legal grounds by continuing these unconstitutional practices.

Boy, was she surprised.

Because so many people have distorted and misunderstood her positions, let's hear from her directly:

"I didn't see this as an issue," she said, referring to the non-denominational prayer suggestion. "I assumed other members of board would agree that citizens were feeling excluded.

"All of the members of the board are well-educated women. Surely, I thought, they would see that under the Constitution of the United States, we have an obligation to be sensitive toward other people and religions. Ethically, morally and legally, it's the right thing to do."

Yet, that has not happened. It makes you wonder why.

Snyder's common-sense notions that all people should feel welcomed at board meetings and in our taxpayer-financed schools have been twisted by some into an attack on their faiths. That's not the result she intended or expected.

At the most recent board meeting, her point was clearly demonstrated -- yet few in the audience made the connection.

An honors student was recognized for extraordinary achievement in the classroom and in the community. The teen is Hindu and has been active in his temple. Yet, he and his family had to stand there and listen as self-righteous fundamentalists insulted his religion by insisting that this is a Christian-only community. The arrogant message to the family was that they and others of their faith are not a part of the community.

The other members of the School Board, of course, missed the opportunity to set the record straight.

During last fall's campaign season, Snyder was seen by many voters as an independent voice who would help balance the all-too-cozy district leadership. She took office as a reformer, with a certain amount of political capital at her disposal.

"I guess I've used that all up," she said, chuckling. "In the short term, maybe, but I hope not in the long term. I hope I haven't polarized the rest of the board."

If that has happened, it's unfortunate because there are a host of real issues that need to be examined, such as a recent report showing that when our students' standardized test scores are compared with the rest of the nation's, 73 percent are below proficient.

To make any changes, she needs the support of not only two other board members, but the community at large. With protesters showing up at board meetings and talk swirling about a recall drive (a non-starter here because we're not a charter county) it has cost her politically.

"I expected to be a change agent, not to dynamite the place," Snyder said. "I hoped to change things in positive ways."

She would prefer to pursue truly significant educational issues, but those are being shunted aside by this red herring.

Her opponents are making a lot of noise, but make no mistake, there is substantial support in Citrus County for her viewpoints.

"I met with an advisory council last night and they are very concerned with the same things that I am. I have gotten many, many calls of support from people who say they should have spoken up earlier, but they didn't want to put their necks on the block."

On the other hand, people have told her, "If I knew what you stood for, I wouldn't have voted for you."

Snyder made no secret of her views on the campaign trail. These questions simply didn't come up. Probably for good reason: The courts long have sided with her view on these issues, so why would anyone think she would challenge the law of the land?

Did she misread the temperament of Citrus County residents?

"It's a good community; people here are good people. I appreciate that, and I don't want to change that. But it is distressing in this day and age when we have become so aware of racial discrimination and anti-Jewish sentiment that we wouldn't have open minds. I chalk it up to experience. I'm not a flaming liberal or a one-issue person. I thought this was a chance to enhance communication."

Of particular concern is that these distractions, if they continue, are going to sap precious resources from the district.

"I think our School Board is at the precipice of a lot of litigation that will cost tons of money for which there are better uses. The board members had better rethink their positions because legally, I'll be proven right, but it will cost a lot of time and money."

Does she have any regrets that these issues are now at center stage?

"I regret the turmoil that it has caused," she said. "I suppose I could have delayed these discussions. But whenever it was addressed, it would've created the same situation. I'm not sorry about that.

"My intention was never to stop prayer, but to become inclusive. When I took office, I had five suggestions and this was the fifth of five. I didn't see it as an issue because I assumed other members of board would not want citizens feeling excluded.

"My comment to parents is let's get back on track and address issues that are important to the children, because this fight is not about kids at all. Think about that. They're not the ones geting excited about it."

To that I say, amen.

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