Religion in schools: Tampa Bay Times talks to everyone except church people

Here we go again with news media talking about religious groups, and talking to others about the groups, without talking to the groups themselves. This week it's the Tampa Bay Times, which has been monitoring the school superintendent's friendly treatment of a couple of Christian organizations.

Here's how the paper dealt with it on Tuesday:

TAMPA -- Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins reaffirmed his support Tuesday for a Christian organization that aims to expand its presence in the public schools.
Addressing First Priority Tampa Bay -- which has grown to serve dozens of local schools in the past six years, with the goal of helping students share the message of Christ -- Eakins said the group's school-based clubs are integral to the culture he is trying to shape in the district.
"We're trying to build great character and great integrity, and ultimately capture the hearts of our kids," he told an audience of about 100 people at the South Tampa Fellowship at Ballast Point.
His message comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are questioning the district's involvement with another Christian ministry.

No kiddin' on that last sentence. By the end of its 900 words, the story has cited not only the ACLU but the Atheists of Florida, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

They complain not only about First Priority but the local Idlewild Baptist Church, for its "training and motivational sessions for school administrators." They also criticize the church for giving away T-shirts with its name and logo. (The next day's story adds that Idlewild also passes out coupons, redeemable for a coffee at the church.)

The critics say Eakins' endorsement creates "social pressure" for teachers to support the efforts. The Times also brings up the First Amendment, "which is widely interpreted as a prohibition against government -- including public schools -- favoring one religion."

To its credit, the newspaper adds: "But the First Amendment also protects a student's right to free speech, including religious speech. Legal arguments typically turn on whether an activity is student led, which would be permitted, or staff led, which would not."

The Times also interviews superintendent Eakins. He brings up the federal Equal Access Act, which allows religious student groups into schools on the same basis as other kinds.

Finally, in the last two paragraphs, the paper slips in a quote from Amber Johansen of First Priority. "They're not trying to brainwash kids, or beat them over the head with a Bible," she says. "They're sharing their stories."

The quote is lifted from Johansen's speech, not via interview. Nor does it address the legal issues that the Times brought up. But at least Johansen got in the story. No one from Idlewild Baptist Church did. As I've said before, this is like talking about someone while they're standing right there.

Wednesday found the paper interviewing April Griffin, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board.  She "wants to establish guidelines for staff -- including superintendent Jeff Eakins, who publicly endorsed a school missionary organization this week," the story says.

Notice that this time, First Priority has been upgraded -- or mutated -- to "school missionary organization." Griffin agrees that schools need help from organizations, including religious ones, but "It has to be secular. And there cannot be proselytizing. I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States -- and Florida -- when I took this office."

She wants to arrange a meeting with Jewish, Hindu and Muslim leaders, as well as Christians, to agree on "parameters that would apply to all religious organizations." Any reaction from Johansen and Idlewild Church? No indication.

And the Times evidently had space; it gives four paragraphs to another school board member. Melissa Snively supports the idea of guidelines but wouldn't bar religious groups as such "if they're trying to improve students' experience." That's nice, but why add someone instead of quoting sources already introduced -- especially since their actions are the focus?

But the coverage must have upset the school district, because it dumped eight documents on the Times, which the newspaper reported Thursday.

"The district's information office assured us that the relationships are subject to thorough scrutiny to make sure students' rights are protected," the paper says mildly. Maybe it's me, but the text reads like "Ouch, that slap hurt our wrists!"

Yet the documents aren’t really discussed; the article just links via the titles, as in "The district shared three documents: guidelines for faith-based organizations, a community partnership agreement and a coordinator's guide concerning community partnerships."

Especially interesting is a policy manual, which allows student-led organizations after school hours. It says that "no group of students, regardless of the size of the group, will be denied an opportunity to meet on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the activity."

And it adds some common-sense guidelines, such as:  The groups must be started and run by students; attendance is voluntary; meetings don't interfere with the main business of education; a staff member may supervise but won't be required to attend if it violates his/her beliefs.

Looks like yes, the documents would have answered many of the questions raised on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I don't know who upset the district office more: the Times, for not checking with them; or Eakins, Griffin and the three school board members who talked to the newspaper without mentioning the policies -- and maybe not knowing about them.

Myself, I'll save my ire for the newspaper. It ran three articles on consecutive days about the role of two Christian organizations in public schools, without interviewing anyone in those groups. The lone quote from First Priority's Johansen was lifted from her speech. And Idlewild Baptist Church was seen but not heard.

Some obvious questions: Are you promoting Christianity in a secular school? Does it build social pressure to favor that faith, as the critics put it? How do you make sure not to violate the First Amendment? Would it be OK for, say, Muslims or Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses to work in schools in the same way you're doing?

First Priority and the Baptists may well have thought of these questions and developed answers. But readers will never know if the newspaper acts like they're not worth talking to.

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