For many, school is a matter of faith
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001
After quietly listening to more than four hours of heartfelt pleas from youngsters and adults, board members didn't debate about banning the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from the Citrus public schools. They didn't fight over references to Christ being removed from board meetings, and they didn't discuss a ban on the Christian faith among public school students and employees.
But, then, those were never the issues on the board's agenda.
Still, the dozens of speakers filed to a microphone set up at Forest Ridge Elementary School to deliver emotional, often-tearful testimony on the importance of Jesus Christ in their lives and pleas to the board not to exile the FCA from the schools.
Many in the capacity crowd of more than 500 people applauded and cheered those affirmations of faith. Other speakers, however, tried to remind the board that they represent them as well. They also urged the board to get back to the business of education and stay out of religious debate.
Only after the children, virtually all of whom were FCA members, had spoken did board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel note that the issue they were addressing was not one that the board had ever considered.
Several hours later, after the final citizen had spoken, board Chairwoman Patience Nave echoed Himmel's comments, saying that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had never been in danger. Instead, the board was to discuss only whether stricter rules were needed for when school clubs could meet.
"But that's a done deal," Nave said, noting that Superintendent David Hickey "has already given us clear guidelines of the policy."
She said principals will continue to make decisions about club meetings and the School Board will continue to open meetings with prayer, which brought more applause from the dwindling crowd.
Himmel agreed that the policy and guidelines on clubs were clear and "at this time I don't see any reason for us to change anything."
"I am thankful that Jesus Christ is alive and well," said board member Ginger Bryant, who praised the children who spoke to the board.
Carol Snyder, the board member who first raised both the prayer and the meeting issues, finally had her turn to speak.
"I guess you all know who I am at this time," Snyder began. She said she wished her fellow board members had been speaking up over the past several months telling people that she did not want to ban prayer at board meetings or to disband the FCA.
Responding to those speakers who had accused her of having a secret agenda, Snyder said the only agenda she has is the one she spoke about during her campaign last fall, which includes a wide array of educational issues.
"I've been a Christian since I was 15," Snyder said. "But that is not germane to this discussion tonight."
She told a story about two Citrus teachers who had spoken badly about her yet they failed to help a child on a field trip who couldn't afford lunch. "I think that Christian actions speak much louder than Christian words," Snyder said, noting that, in her oath of office, she swore to uphold the laws of the United States.
Snyder has pushed for the board to end its policy of having nearly all opening prayers for board meetings overtly Christian. She explained that she didn't believe it to be Christian when people are being offended and excluded.
"I pray every day," she said. "I pray that I am God's tool. But my Jesus Christ accepts everybody. My Jesus Christ loves everybody."
Snyder said that she disagreed with Himmel's assertion that the school district had been following its policy and that everything was fine. She pointed out that if there had been no problems, there would have been no need for Hickey to fine-tune the guidelines.
Board member Pat Deutschman said she was not surprised that people were confused about the issues with all the newspaper headlines on the topic and the picture of a Wiccan on the front page.
Deutschman said it was the board's responsibility "to protect the moral integrity of our community."
"It's time to bring closure to the issue," Hickey said, wrapping up the board's comments.
School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick agreed that the issues were now wrapped up. He once again repeated that the board could say a prayer before meetings, although he said it shouldn't always be to Jesus Christ, and he maintained that the FCA party that ignited the controversy was proper and legal.
He disagreed with Snyder's contention that the new guidelines proved there was a problem. Instead, he characterized them as clarification to be sure all administrators knew how to implement the policy.
Fitzpatrick also told the board he did not want to see the Citrus schools involved in litigation over the issues.
That question remains to be answered. Officials with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union have been watching the events unfold. The board has also received notice from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State threatening possible legal action over the prayer and club meeting actions.
Fitzpatrick has maintained that the board faces no dangers from such threats.
And while Nave, Fitzpatrick and Hickey all concluded that there was nothing more to say on the topic, Snyder said Wednesday that it will surface one more time. No action could be taken at Tuesday's meeting because it was a workshop. So Snyder has asked the board to schedule a formal discussion of the opening prayer at the next regular meeting March 13.
Snyder said she planned to make a motion to open meetings with a moment of reflection. Although she said she expected to be voted down, she said that would formally decide the issue.
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