Is there a place for religious expression in public schools?
Should history be taught to students via the Bible and texts dealing with Darwinism in a public school district's classrooms?
Spencer school board members, with hoped-for input from members of the public, are planning to address issues such as these with a draft religious liberty policy currently under consideration.
Barb Van Wyk and David Schlichtemeier crafted the policy -- which also recognizes the Constitution's "free practice" clause -- and placed it before their peers this week. Their hope is to join school boards across the nation which have already dealt with this topic.
The Spencer board discussion was spurred by a keynote address delivered by Charles Haynes at the 2007 Iowa Association of School Boards conference held in Des Moines. Haynes, a co-author to "Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools," a First Amendment guide to religion and public education published by the First Amendment Center, told school board members across Iowa the importance of districts having religious liberty policies in place before any kind of an issue would come up.
"He said it's better to have the discussion as a board and as a community proactively," Van Wyk recalled.
With Hayne's guide and the "Darwin's Black Box" book by Michael Behe in hand, and a handful of community members' insights, Van Wyk and Schlichtemeier drafted the policy presented Tuesday night.
"Currently, we don't have anything in place (within the Spencer school district)," Van Wyk said. "So, what ends up happening is both staff and students end up checking their faith at the door because everybody's afraid to say anything at all. Nobody wants to get in trouble. But that's not what our founding fathers intended either. So, we want to put it out there in a clear way that we don't expect students to check their faith at the door."
As it is currently written, the draft religious liberty policy touches on student and employee religious expressions, the distribution of religious materials on school grounds, and religion in the district's curriculum.
In its purpose and philosophy section, the policy lists that the school wouldn't discriminate against private religious expression. It also would educate about, but not indoctrinate, religious faith. In addition, district representatives would promote dialogue between schools and the community concerning faith, as well as create a climate of academic freedom concerning faith issues. Students and employees would also be allowed religious expression within the law. And, the school would neither promote or disparage religious faith.
The policy offered by Van Wyk, a pastor who is currently working with her family to serve as full-time missionaries in Africa, and Schlichtemeier, a Spencer pharmacist, defines religion and evolution. It also states that the school shouldn't forbid expression solely because of religious content. As far as graduation exercises and other extracurricular activities, it declares the "content of speeches by private individuals will not be regulated on religious content" and that the school "will permit the graduating class to choose whether to have an invocation and/or benediction to be given by a student (or) volunteer in a non-proselytizing and nonsectarian manner."
In regard to the potential distribution of religious materials on Spencer's school grounds, the draft policy asserts that such materials couldn't be singled out for specific regulation based on their content and that students may distribute such at "reasonable times and manners as designated by the school."
Teachers, as outlined in the religious liberty policy, would maintain an officially neutral position on religious issues while performing their duties. But, if a teacher were to be asked specific questions about his or her faith by a student, the instructor could choose to answer on a personal level.
The draft's approach to religion being offered within the district's curriculum is that it would have to be academically, not devotionally, based. Curriculum areas overlapping religious faith would demonstrate a respect for affected religious convictions. In addition, electives to be offered at Spencer High School, as suggested in the policy being considered by school board members, could include the national "The Bible in History and Literature" curriculum, as well as a scientific approach reviewing the evidence for and against the theory of evolution.
"This, and teaching the Bible as history, has already been adopted by 244 school districts in 32 states," Van Wyk said of the national curriculum suggested. "The Bible's a historical document and our country historically was founded on much of it. So, to teach it as history and literature is something that I think we're going to study for our students to be able to choose. This is being done all over the country. I hope it can happen here in Spencer, too."
Van Wyk also stated the religious liberty policy presented was taken in part from the "Finding Common Ground" book, which is also well documented with court cases.
"The things that we've outlined here are well within the constitutional rights of students," she said. "As far as speaking about it, handing out literature, having clubs and things like that, no one, to this point, has told them they couldn't do that. But, people are afraid to (do such things). We just want to proactively put it out there and say, 'Students, you're free to express your religious convictions. Here are the parameters.' So, we haven't gone out on a limb on any of this or proposed anything that hasn't looked good or been challenged in the court system."
* Spencer board members are expected to further address this matter, along with input from Iowa Association of School Boards Attorney Mary Gannon and Spencer attorney Steve Avery, either during a 5:30 p.m. work session on Wednesday, July 8, or their July 30 meeting.
* Learned that the Johnson Elementary preschool, which is a Shared Vision program, achieved accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children recently. The five-year accreditation granted to A Child's Garden carried a 94 percent approval rating.
* Were informed that Spencer did not receive a voluntary preschool grant for 4-year-old children it had applied for from the Department of Education. Superintendent Greg Ebeling suggested since reviewers of Spencer's grant application found there are 11 preschools in the community already, it was hard to show a need for another. The district will continue to apply for this grant, though, Ebeling reported.
* Were told that school board candidates may file nomination papers July 6-30. The papers for four-year board terms are available in the district's central office, online or from Clay County Auditor Marjorie Pitt's office. Nomination petitions are due to be filed with school board secretaries by 5 p.m. July 30. This year's regular school board election will be held Tuesday, Sept. 8. In Spencer, Ed Ver Steeg and Barb Van Wyk have announced their intentions to not seek re-election. David Schlichtemeier, who has not formally committed to a third term as a Spencer school board member, has accepted candidate materials.